Saturday, December 7, 2019

If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?

Or, The First Messiah Performance of the Season

Whilst looking for entertainment I happened upon this performance of dear Mr. Handel's Messiah, and I was perfectly charmed. The information given by the individual who posted this to YouTube is infuriatingly useless, but a commenter noted that the ensemble is Collegium 1704 in Prague, and the conductor is Vaclav Lucs. A quick screen shot at the end revealed the soloists' names.  I found the tempi spritely and quite appropriate, quite a contrast to many of the stodgy performances I've witnessed and been a part of. I was impressed with the coloratura ability of each section in those difficult choruses we all know. It was of course obvious that these people are not native English speakers, but after a while I didn't care. At least there was consistency in their mispronunciations!

Let me say this. I have been a choral singer all of my life, and I have always loved Messiah. The score I used in my freshman year of college to perform Messiah is still one of my most treasured possessions.  I miss with all my heart the days when I was capable of singing this music. There has never been a time when I was cynical about Messiah. (OK, maybe sometimes about the Hallelujah chorus, but that's understandable.) I used to sing "Comfort Ye/Ev'ry Valley" at every opportunity. Every few years the second Sunday of Advent, when that text is appropriate, falls on my birthday, and that delights me especially. (For the record, that happens this year, but I'm certainly not attempting to sing it this year.)

There are different schools of thought about performance practice. Some people are accustomed to symphonic presentations of this great work, while others will only accept "authentic early music practice", whatever that is. It is my opinion that both positions are valid, and I enjoy them both. I don't need to feel "earlier than thou" to enjoy a Baroque masterpiece, but I do appreciate some nuances that suggest the performers are not reading exactly as printed in the G. Schirmer edition. On the other hand, I still find it surprising to have the alto soloist sing "For he is like a refiner's fire". I want the tenor to sing all four of "Thy rebuke/Behold and see/He was not cut off/But thou didst not leave", but that's probably because I used to enjoy doing them as a set.

If you can read the screen shot above, you can get the soloists' names. I liked them all. Yes, dear readers, I liked all the soloists. All of them had the appropriate tone, agility, and artistry for their roles. Because of the quick tempi, none of that tension-causing artificial darkness we so often hear was present. It's simply not possible to sing this music this well with that kind of tension. At the same time, they didn't have that bland, white sound we sometimes hear from "early music" artists, with the possible exception of a few sustained tones sung straight, with no vibrato. 

But. Maybe it's a sign that I'm aging, but I was more focused on the choruses than the arias. I loved them. For that I credit Mr. Lucs, the conductor. Overall I quite approve of this performance, if that matters, and I recommend giving it a listen when you get a chance.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

OR Tell the Truth, Even if it's a Crime!

Both titles are are relevant nowadays. I won't go into the second, a direct translation of one of Pamina's lines in Mr. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, but I must explain the first a little bit. I've had far too much sadness in my life in the past few years, and it's little moments when I'm reminded of magic and wonder that give me strength. That is why dear little Wolfie's perfect overture to Die Zauberflöte at Dallas Opera on Friday night, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, had me in tears. (When's the last time you heard someone say that about a Mozart overture?)

Andrea Carroll and Sean Michael Plumb
Photo:  Karen Almond for Dallas Opera
The cast was pretty darn good, but Andrea Carroll brought the most magic vocally. Whenever she sang one felt a buzz of electricity. Miss Carroll is a member of the Vienna State Opera, and I must say I'd dearly love to hear the roles she is singing there--Norina, Susanna, Adina, among others. I saw her sing Julie Jordan at Glimmerglass a few years ago, and wrote about her in glowing terms. As Pamina, she shone vocally, and showed Pamina's madness without overdoing it. (Let's face it--by contemporary story-telling standards, Pamina is not a sane girl! Then again, how might any of us react if we were held captive and didn't understand why, and the man who'd promised to save us seemed to reject us?)

Morris Robinson as Sarastro. More magic. I saw Mr. Robinson a few years ago as the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo at Opera Philadelphia, and was quite impressed. I wrote, "He sang and acted the role in a manner both subtle and chilling. It was clear Mr. Robinson had the secure technique from top to bottom to sing a great Philip, which made his Grand Inquisitor even more powerful." He continues to impress as Sarastro, full of sonorous dignity and tenderness. I must have annoyed those sitting behind me, because my posture improved immeasurably every time he sang!

Bryan Frutiger as Monostatos, Sean Michael Plumb as Papageno,
Andrea Carroll as Pamina, and ensemble
Photo: Jason Janik, Dallas News
I saw Sean Michael Plumb, Papageno in this production, sing Fiorello in Barber of Seville a few years ago, again at Philadelphia, and I wrote, "...this is a voice we'll hear sing Figaro soon – and I hope often!" His singing was quite good, and his acting charming. I even like the pompadour (Papa-dour?) hairdo the designers gave him.

Ensemble members were uniformly excellent. The three ladies of Diana Newman, Samanatha Hankey, and Hannah Ludwig were great fun. Especially the Third Lady! I quite liked the two Armed Men of Aaron Short and Ryan Kuster.

Tamino was very well sung by Paolo Fanale. Jeni Houser was a good Queen of the Night, but I prefer a steelier voice in that role.

I told a fellow audience member I had never seen this production, which was perpetrated by Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera, but surely I must have. Costumes that ugly don't happen twice by accident. I hope most agree I'm a pretty nice guy, and it takes a lot for me to publish a statement that harsh, but these costumes deserve it. Second Lady--what were they thinking? And the chorus of priests brought to mind Planet of the Apes.

I could write Magic Flute stories for days. I have actually sung every tenor role in the opera, and have often used Papageno's music for mid-range warm-ups. (Mozart is said to have hated tenors, and one look at any tenor role in this opera will convince you of that idea--First Armed Man requires a baby heldentenor, and Tamino himself requires almost perfect vocal technique in the particular weight of tenor voice in fashion for Tamino this week. Monostatos is not an easy sing, and even the First Priest is a challenge!) And there's the time a new friend went on and on about how he hated Mozart operas, and then asked, "What's your blog again?"  Um. Taminophile.

I regret there is only one more performance of this run of Die Zauberflöte, but I hope that readers in the area will go to see it. I do highly recommend it. As always, excellent singing wins out over all other considerations. Even those costumes.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Love is fleeting, but revenge is forever!

Or I'm sorry, but I miss the trills

Ludovic Tézier as DiLuna and
Maria Agresta as Leonora
Photo:  Teatro Real
I recently watched another wonderful production on OperaVision, as it had been far too long since I'd witnessed any opera.  Or done much writing, for that matter. This was Il Trovatore from Spain's Teatro Real. I believe it was streamed live in June and will be available to view until next June.

Caruso is said to have opined that all you need to produce Il Trovatore is the four best singers in the world. While most of the singing was pretty darn good, I wouldn't call these the best singers in the world. My favorite was the Azucena of Ekaterina Semenchuk. Very robust, healthy, and beautiful sound throughout, and a very affecting performance. Ludovic Tézier as Count di Luna was a fine singer, but a bit distracting to watch. I wondered whether he was in pain at times. Maria Agresta is a name I knew, but I don't believe I'd ever seen her before. Her Leonora had some very fine moments, and overall I like her singing, but I really missed the trills and fioritura required of the role. (In fact, none of the singers seemed able to trill.) Ferrando was quite well sung by Roberto Tagliavini. Tenor Francesco Meli, never a real favorite of mine, was adequate as Manrico, but he did have some beautifully tender moments vocally.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena
Photo:  TheLondonMagazine.org
In fact, there were many tender moments in this traditionally "park and bark" opera, thanks to the music direction of Maurizio Benini and the production of Director Francisco Negrín. Both of Leonora's arias, which are glorious to hear when sung well but not always very interesting to watch, were a pleasure. We could see in her first aria the young girl Leonora is instead of the middle-aged woman it takes to sing that difficult role, and in her last act aria the tormented woman she has become. I was also deeply moved when Azucena sang "Ai nostri monti" to the ghost of her son.

Oh yes. There were ghosts in this production. Two of them, to be exact. Unless you count the very fine men's chorus, which was all made up to look like zombies, whether they were soldiers or gypsies. (The women's chorus was also quite good.) There were quite a few things I didn't understand, but I found the flame that remained lit on state for the entire opera effective. There was a moveable column that confused me, although I will say I liked that in the last act, it had projections of flames on it as the pyre was being prepared for Azucena's execution.

I gripe about a few things, and those more in-the-know about current European opera production might mock my traditional viewpoints (for the record, I had more complaints about a Met production of Il Trovatore I saw several years ago than this), but I do recommend viewing this opera if you have a few hours to spend at your computer. In the end, the tender moments and most of the singing win the day.

Leonora's convent scene
Photo:  Teatro Real

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

I've mentioned I sort of like Norma, right?

Earlier this evening I mentioned I was seeking a heart-wrenching Norma performance.  Because I'm completely incapable of dealing with my own emotions, but boy howdy, can I identify with a Medieval Druid priestess!

Shut up!

I wound up with this video on YouTube:


Norma.  1967.  Berlin.  Elinor Ross.  Mario del Monaco.  And as Adalgisa, Giovanna Vighi, of whom we never hear in the US, but WOW!

OK, there were vocal flaws, and this was the park & bark era, and yes, Adalgisa did get lost during "Mira, o Norma", but really, how exciting is this?  VERY!

For the sake of discussion, let us take the following points:
  • The opera is perfect.  Perfect.  I'll hear no arguments!  Messrs. Bellini and Romani have provided us with an amazing theatrical experience that includes solos, ensembles, choruses, and virgin sacrifices.  OK, maybe not the virgin sacrifices.  But the story line is amazing, the character development is spellbinding, and at the end there is not a single character we don't sympathize with.  Except for that bastard Pollione, perhaps.
  • We leave thinking about about these characters. We're not just humming tunes, but we're wondering what happens to Norma's children and to Adalgisa.  We're wondering just how many young maidens Pollione has seduced before Norma, and between Norma and Adalgisa. Had he not done the uncharacteristically noble thing and accepted death on the funeral pyre, we'd still be wondering how many maidens he was seducing today!
  • This opera has been the vehicle for countless amazing sopranos, and a few who were considered amazing until they tried it.  And each production has been the stuff of decades of gossip.  (I myself was in the chorus of a 1990 production in Miami with Carol Neblett as Norma.  I won't say any more.)  At least one soprano of current international fame was not a favorite of mine until I heard her conquer this role with complete confidence, technical ability, and dramatic certainty.  
  • Of two things I am certain:  If you don't care about puppies and if you don't understand Norma, then we can't be friends.  OK, since Norma came into being in 1835, that might take some effort, so you'll get a temporary pass on that.  But the puppies are not negotiable.  I'm totally serious about that.

These are just a few thoughts.  I need more opera in my life.  If only there were a living in viewing and writing about opera!  As I recently posted, I'll be able to see the entire season at Opera Carolina, and I might be able to wangle tickets to other regional opera companies' productions as well.  (I did recently write of Opera Wilmington's very nice La Boheme.)  

Monday, July 22, 2019

Il perche non so

I wrote of Opera Wilmington's delightful Amahl and the Night Visitors in January. I was quite impressed with the performance itself, the organization and its apparent administrative and development skills, and its marketing and public relations efforts. So I was excited to attend Friday night's opening of La Boheme as part of the Lumina Festival of the Arts at UNC Wilmington. I walked away very happy with the singing, and wondering exactly how I would write about other production components.

Jemeesa Yarborogh
The principals were all stellar.  Jemeesa Yarborough stole the show as Mimi.  A very beautiful and full voice, skilled and sensitive singing, and an endearing stage presence made the entire audience fall in love with this young girl who embroiders flowers in her lonely attic room. I see great things in this beautiful young soprano's future--perhaps bigger Puccini roles like Tosca or Manon Lescaut?--and I hope I am able to witness these triumphs.

Jonathan Kaufmann, another highly skilled singer, was Rodolfo. He was a pleasure to hear, with a voice that sounded free and easy throughout and a sound completely appropriate for Rodolfo. He is also a skilled actor and moves easily on stage for a man of size. One did wonder why his voice, which is beautiful, didn't seem to fill the auditorium as the other principals' voices did.

Jonathan Kaufmann
Marcello was sung by Andrew René, a fine young baritone, to quite pleasing effect. His love Musetta was beautifully sung by young Mary Claire Curran. I expect a bright future for both of these singers as well. The Schaunard of Scott Ballentine and the Colline of Carl Samet were quite fine. In particular, Mr. Ballentine brought a lot of life to Schaunard, a role that in some other productions can be quite thankless.

I hope I'm known as a supporter of regional opera and opera performed by young professionals. I wish Opera Wilmington had had the time and resources for more rehearsal with the orchestra and chorus, and perhaps some better decisions with other production components. I do recommend seeing one of the two remaining performances, on July 26 and 28. Once again, singing and story win the day.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Wie eiskalt ist dein Händchen.....

There's a reason La Boheme seems to be the most beloved of all operas. There's a reason singers will do anything to sing these beautiful roles and audiences will pay top dollar to see a good production.  There's also a reason that, although I lived in New York for over 25 years, I refused to ever see Rent, a 1980s retelling of the La Boheme story as a new musical.

The four Bohemians
Photo:  Iko Freese, drama-berlin.de
We hear a lot about "concept" opera, seemingly arbitrary or senseless retelling or reframing of opera stories for novelty or shock value. I don't get it. I don't need to see Marriage of Figaro on a tennis court or a post-apocalyptic Die Walküre under a freeway on-ramp. I certainly don't need to see another literal embodiment of the idea that we are all born naked and alone and die naked and alone. And don't get me started on penguins! I haven't seen many instances where the supposed intent of clarifying social roles and power structures was achieved, but I won't say there have been none. The Glimmerglass Festival's updated Ariadne in Naxos of 2015 is an example that worked. Examples abound where the updating didn't get in the way of the story telling too much, and the costumes (for some reason usually 1960s Jackie Kennedy styles) were fun. In some cases the updating was confusing and distracting, and substantially diminished enjoyment of an otherwise fine performance.

I won't say that is the case in the Komische Oper Berlin production of La Boheme that is currently viewable at operavision.eu (until July 26, 2019), but I was confused. The original story is from mid-19th century, but the opera was first performed in 1896. I never really had a clear picture what era was being portrayed in this production. There were some clever ideas, such as the landlord in Act I never appearing but being impersonated/mocked by the four Bohemians as they prepare to go out into the Paris evening and make mischief. I also liked the idea of never seeing the parade in Act II, but seeing the crowd react to it. And seeing a much earthier crowd than one has seen before--really, it's not a Victorian drawing room comedy! The most distracting addition, however, was the camera setup Marcello had--while it's true this equipment did exist in the 1860s, it is highly unlikely a poor painter living in a shabby attic would have it. And the idea of taking photos for posterity distracted from the action. (Fortunately there were no POOF moments of flash and smoke.) Other distractions include some unfortunate costuming choices--did they really intend Mimi's Act I dress to remind one of a prison uniform with its horizontal stripes?--and inferior subtitles.

Musetta captivates all in Act II
Having gotten all of that out of my system, let me now rave about the singing, which was all quite good. The primary couple of Rodolfo and Mimi were beautifully sung by Jonathan Tetelman and Nadia Mchantaf, both of whom were new to me. I hope I hear more of these appealing young singers in the future! Ms Mchantaf is a highly skilled singing actress, and one didn't care about the distracting production elements when she was singing. If I'm sobbing at the curtain call because Mimi isn't dead after all, I call it a success, and this is what happened. Mr. Telelman is a handsome fellow and also a highly skilled singing actor. He gave Rodolfo a good combination of youthful immaturity and sadness. I was disappointed the director didn't have him touch Mimi when he realizes she has died.

As Marcello, Günther Papendell sounded nervous at first but became much more at ease with the vocal demands of the role as he threw himself into the character. Vera-Lotte Böcker was an appealing Musetta, growing from the impetuous, self absorbed girl of Act II to the more mature woman of Act IV. The Schaunard of Dániel Foki was fun, and the Colline of Philip Meierhöfer was appropriately somber. Conductor Jordan de Souza was quite good. We don't often think about how difficult this score actually is, but Mr. de Souza and the orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin never made it sound so.

Truly, my biggest gripes were with production values--Director Barrie Kosky, Set Designer Rufus Didwiszus, and Costume Designer Victoria Behr seemed to be operating on a concept I never really understood.  Lighting Designer Alessandro Carletti had the set so dark, it's been difficult to find pictures online to steal include with this post.

I realize this review sounds negative overall, but I do recommend viewing this production while it is still available. The singing and the story win out over all the distractions.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Dame Joan Sutherland has spoiled me for other sopranos

I was introduced to the wonder that was Joan Sutherland because I was a Marilyn Horne fan boy.  I'd seen the blessed Ms. Horne on The Tonight Show, and on reruns of The Odd Couple, where she had a recurring guest role as one of Oscar Madison's coworkers. Well, on an LP of Marilyn Horne hits, I discovered "Mira o Norma", that duet from the greatest opera of all time (I might be biased here), sung with Joan Sutherland. I soon had to have their complete Norma recording, and their album of Bellini and Rossini duets.

Then I found the 1960 album "The Art of the Prima Donna".  Oh.  My.  Gawd.  Becky!!!!!!!!!  I was in fan boy heaven!  Arias and excerpts from Norma, Semiramide, Artaserse (!!!!), plus hit parade arias from Faust, Otello, La Traviata, etc.  It was on this album I first heard "Son vergin vezzosa" from Mr. Bellini's masterpiece, I Puritani.  Like many lead soprano roles, there's something wrong with this girl.  (The title literally means "I'm a mad maiden".  Keep in mind that in days of yore, the word virgin meant young woman more often than it mean woman who had never.....um.....heard Puccini.)  I used to play this recording for my fellow fan boys and we would squeal with delight. As fan boys are wont to do. I simply adore her completely casual treatment of the many high Bs. 






A television performance of the aforementioned "Mira, o Norma" with Marilyn Horne:



Another television performance, Lucia di Lammermoor on Bell Telephone Hour.  Lucia was the role that brought her international fame in 1959.  (Forgive the makeup.  Color television was new in1962.)





There are many more performances to be found on YouTube, but these are some favorites.

I don't mean to suggest there aren't other very fine sopranos, past and present.  Some I adore, in fact.  But Dame Joan was La Stupenda.  What more can be said?


OK, just one more video:


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Guest Blogger Kofi Hayford Reviews "Pavarotti"

I’ll start this out by giving a bit of background about me and what Pavarotti means to me. I can confidently say that if it wasn’t for Pavarotti, there would be a good chance that I may never have picked up opera singing. I sang before I heard Pavarotti, but I didn’t ever think of myself as an opera singer or have a desire for it before hearing him. He inspired me to want to create as grand and magnificent as he could. Seeing this movie brought me full-circle and truly moved me. It was an emotional experience hearing the stories and the various carefully selected excerpts from the film. I’m extremely thankful to Ron Howard for making this much needed movie about one of my heroes. My only complaint is that I wish it was made sooner.

Takeaways from the Pavarotti movie:

Pavarotti's mission was bigger than himself, bigger than singing opera. It was to serve the people, bring opera to the world. He dreamed big. His career took off because he was prepared, had the talent, and and enjoyed the benefit of managers who pushed him in the right directions.

I’ve always felt that technique is the most important component to master before you attempt to get your career going. Pavarotti took a similar approach in that he really studied the voice from technical perspective and grew a proficiency early in his career. To me, his sound  was pure, consistent, clear and powerful always.

One funny thing was that even with all the preparation, all the success and all the mastery, he was still quite nervous on stage and used the white handkerchief to diffuse his nervous tension and energy. He kept a bent nail in this pocket as a good luck charm even though he was devout Catholic. Such superstitions and rituals (like his well known fondness for large bowls of pasta before a performance) helped keep him grounded in the midst of a whirlwind career in an extremely turbulent field.

This is all to say that he was larger than life in many ways and beloved by millions of people. He sold over 100 million albums and sang live for over 10 million people across the world. He deeply cared about suffering in the world and started a foundation that still helps disadvantaged children around the globe. He was playful and fun and LOVED being around women. Although a vocal Superman, Pavarotti was just human as all of us are.

Despite all that he did to popularize opera and bring it to the masses, the world of opera began to judge him for branching out and crossing over to collaborate with artists in other genres. I applaud him for that. Opera needs to be part of popular culture if we are going to keep pumping out singers from conservatories with music degrees in the numbers we are currently putting up. I thank him for being brave and bold and compassionate and true to his convictions. You’ll see in the movie that even back then in the city of Modena when he grew up, the business of singing was saturated and crowded but he was able to stand out and rise to the top. Many singers today can relate. Very inspiring.

They say that when a person dies, you get an understanding of who they were and what type of impact they had on the world. The one thing I can say for certain is that Pavarotti was an immeasurable force for good and did in one lifetime, what many could only dream to do in several.




Kofi Hayford, Ghanaian-American bass, described as possessing an “impressive” (Brooklyn Discovery) “sonorous,” (Meet Me at the Opera) and “stentorian bass voice” (National Herald) also produces a distinct sound - easily identified for its unique timbre. He is swiftly building his reputation as an accomplished  bass by bringing an ‘exciting’ and ‘stunning’ sound to the stage. Kofi’s major opera roles have included: Mephistopheles in Faust, Ramphis and The King in Aida,  La Roche in Strauss’ Capriccio, Raimondo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Rodolfo in La Sonnambula, Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figaro, Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Sparafucile and Monterone in Rigoletto,  and Baldassare in La  Favorita. Kofi is the 2018 1st Place Winner of the Tchaikovsky Music Competition(Albany, NY), 2017 NJ State Opera Guild Competition Finalist, and a 2007 Songfest Young Artist.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Opera Wilmington's beautiful Amahl and the Night Visitors

I have a long history with Amahl and the Night Visitors. I have sung Kasper several times--I've had the boys playing Amahl prompt me on the next stone in my magic box!--and I believe one of the first reviews I ever wrote was of dear Chelsea Opera's 2009 production. On Sunday I was pleased to see Opera Wilmington's production of Amahl. I'm relatively new to Wilmington, although my family has been here for many generations, so I was delighted to find such a fine production.

Jose Chirinos as Amahl and
Maria Beery as the Mother
Photo:  Opera Wilmington
I must rave first about the two most important singers, Amahl and his mother. Jose Chirinos deserves great praise for singing and acting the crippled boy Amahl so beautifully. There was never a moment of doubt in my mind, and he played against the more experienced singers and actors very well. Maria Beery was a very fine Mother. Although the Mother is often sung by heavier voices, Ms Beery was fully equal to the role. Always vocally beautiful, but also quite expressive and musical. I don't believe I've seen a more desperate and passionate performance of "All that gold". Her vocal moments with Amahl were quite lovely, Ms Beery showing the complete vocal control to refrain from overpowering young Amahl. (I think it was a wise choice to very subtly mic young Mr. Chirinos.)

The three kings are designed to be half comic relief and half Greek chorus. Rusty Kling as Kasper, Quentin Lovette as Melchior and Carl Samet as Balthazar were a fine trio, although not always balanced. I was especially pleased vocally with the lower two voices.

This is my first experience with Opera Wilmington, and I'm quite impressed. This group knows how to raise funds! The programs were very professional, they had received a grant to use an orchestra, and most of the production values were great. They've had impressive looking seasons in recent years, and in June will be assaying La Boheme.

I do wish they had done more to overcome the limitations of staging an opera in a chancel. Even if the orchestra had not been directly in front of the chancel--and why not off on the sides?--the way the place is built limits sight lines. Something as simple as a table for props or an elevated platform to perform upon would have done wonders. I have no complaints with the orchestra or conductor, and I must say the chorus, comprised of members of the UNCW Chamber Choir and Forest Hills Global Elementary School students, was quite fine, even though it needed more men.

I am very sorry there was only one performance, for I'd gladly recommending seeing a subsequent performance. I can only recommend seeing future concerts and performances of other works.

A triumphant curtain call
Photo:  Opera Wilmington