Friday, December 17, 2021

The Extra-Large

At this time of year, my thoughts often turn to dear Mr. Menotti, for I have sung quite a few performance of his brilliant Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. (No, not as Amahl.  No, also not as the Mother.)  However, this time around, I was very pleased, upon perusing the bountiful offerings of, to find that a performance of The Medium from Croatia was on offer.  How could I resist?

Dubravka Šeparović Mušović
as Flora
Photo:  Mara Bratos

Most young people might only know of The Medium from "Monica's Waltz", which it seems every young soprano must sing as a first-year voice major. Let me tell you, there is a depth in this opera that requires years of life experience to understand. I believe it deserves place among those many great operas that we understand in different, and one hopes more perceptive, ways as one enters every new stage of life. In a nutshell, this is the story of a woman who has made a successful business as a pretend medium finding and fearing that there is more to life, more to be answered for. In usual operatic convention, it does not end well.

Allow me to congratulate the Croatian National Theater Zagreb for this production, visually, dramatically, and musically. Usually one sees a young soubrette as Monica, the daughter of the medium Baba, who often assists in the theatrical seances. I don't wish to sound harsh, but in this case, seeing what was clearly intended to appear as the faded beauty of a not-as-young Monica gave a new insight into the role. Additionally, the mute role of Toby was played with a more cynical and knowing edge that we often see.  The Madame Flora/Baba of Dubravka Šeparović Mušović (that's the only name I will cut and paste!) was simply amazing! In the direction, the costuming, the hair & makeup, and the lighting, we were given a Flora that was both detestable and sympathetic, bringing at least one tear to this bitter old eye.

I have seen this opera before. I produced it once as part of a one-act opera festival, with stellar young singers and director.  (My own living room furniture was used for the set!) But never have I seen it with this level of emotional impact.  

Please use the link above to see a cast list and other credits.  It's just after 6 a.m. on a Friday morning, and I've been watching opera and British history videos all night while crocheting. I can't be bothered.  But please do watch this!

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Another Verdi Requiem

I love to write about the Verdi Requiem.  I could do it all day long.  A few years ago I started a project I intended to be Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems.  I couldn't complete it, because the work is just so overwhelming at times.  Plus, you know, life and stuff.

Gustavo Dudamel
Photo:  Tristram Kenton for The Guardian
I happened upon this 2013 performance, which I did not know, with great delight.  This was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under Grant Gerson), at the Hollywood Bowl. I can only say that I have found a new performance that ranks high among all of those recorded performances I know.

I have often written that I most often notice a conductor when something has gone amiss. Most of the time I expect a conductor to know what he's doing. In this case, nothing went amiss. I appreciated the final result in the performance. Not every conductor makes the same phrasing choices, but that is sometimes where the interest lies, no? I quite appreciated the stately and reverent tempi Mr. Dudamel chose for some of the contrapuntal sections, as opposed to the frenzied tempi one sometimes hears. I have no complaints with the LA Phil or with Mr. Dudamel, and by golly, I can not find a single reason to complain about the LA Master Chorale. 

The quartet was almost the quartet of dreams. I might hesitate to cast Vittorio Grigolo in the tenor role, but he did indeed give a lovely performance.  Keep in mind the first Verdi Requiem I ever heard boasted Placido Domingo in the tenor role, so I usually appreciate a tenor voice of more size and warmth. Mr. Grigolo, however, allayed all my fears, and gave a fine performance. He even had a trill when required. 

I had seen Michelle De Young in Philadelphia as Eboli. I was told she was ill at the time, so I did not think it kind or professional to assess her vocal accomplishments in that performance, although I did hear pleasing sounds and was impressed by her commitment to the role regardless of vocal state in the moment. In this Verdi Requiem performance, we heard great vocal skill and accomplishment and witnessed great commitment to the Requiem text. I have more than once stated that "Liber scriptus" should part one's hair, and in this case Ms. De Young did not disappoint. She also gave an admirable performance in "Lux aeterna", a section that I have seen cause very highly skilled and accomplished mezzos panic. 

Ildebrando D'Archangelo was the bass of dreams. I have before written that it is so unusual when "Mors stupebit" ends in tune that it sounds wrong when it happens. It happened here, but did not sound wrong. His "Confutatis" was spell-binding, and his ensemble work in trios and quartets was beyond reproach. He might be my favorite soloist in this quartet. Even though he's a bass.

Juliana Di Giacomo was the soprano. I quite loved watching and hearing her. Every soprano is judged by the "Libera me" when she assays the Verdi Requiem, and I must say she did quite well. She had power, she had legato, she had a floating sound in her high voice when required. The "Requiem aeternam" section of "Libera me" was heavenly. In those sections when Ms. Di Giacomo and Ms. De Young sang duets, I was completely entranced. One often approaches "Agnus Dei" wondering whether these soloists are equal to the task, and after a moment, I had no fear.  Their "Recordare" also was amazing.

In sum, I think I must come back to this performance often. I love many performances of Verdi Requiem, and there are some I love less.  As I mention, this will rank high on my list. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Do you believe in magic?

Recently I wrote a blog article about things I have experienced as an opera lover. People I have met, performances I have witnessed.

Today, largely because US Thanksgiving is this week, and I will host a YouTube live stream today with the theme of Thanksgiving, I started thinking of magic. Some people don't like the word magic, associating it with whatever is the opposite of God in their minds. I myself only associate magic with God, or the Divinity, or whatever name you have for what is beyond our own human comprehension. We don't need labels or definitions, but we do need to know those things for which we are thankful. Those things that cause wonder in the moment and in memory.

Here is partial list of those moments of magic I have seen. Not surprisingly, many of them center around vocal music:

  • I was once brought to tears when interviewing an opera company creator upon hearing his vision of fostering complete understanding in young singers, in the way that young singers in the age of Rossini or Verdi would have known the language and the cultural references intimately.
  • I have seen magic in the acts of love from family and friends that I could not begin to number.
  • I was present for Angela Meade's first Norma and for Jennifer Rowley's explosion into the opera world as Maria di Rohan. I later saw Angela Meade perform Norma in another production that brought me to tears.
  • Years ago, just before I was to undergo surgery, I was sitting alone in a wheelchair in a hospital corridor, without my glasses even, and a wonderful woman came along and offered so much reassurance that I think she surely must have been an angel.
  • I saw Talise Trevigne as Bess in Porgy and Bess, one of three productions of Porgy and Bess I have seen.
  • I can not witness the opening of Oklahoma! without crying. (There was a time in my life when I could not cry.)
  • At a retreat talent show, I saw a very lovely and gentle man who must have been 80 if he was a day transform as he performed a speech from The Glass Menagerie on stage.
  • I have a dog, so I know about love. 'Nuff said.
  • I can not count how many performances I have seen of the Verdi Requiem. I don't need to, and there will never be too many.
  • I saw a performance of La Boheme that had me sobbing when Mimi died (sorry if that's a spoiler), and had me sobbing even more when the soprano who sang Mimi appeared in a curtain call, not dead after all! This was a mid-level semi-professional production, with young and passionate singers.
  • I have seen amazing beauty in the yarn work of people I have met and want to meet.
  • I have seen art work that took my breath away in museums and public works around the world.

I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea. There is magic in the world. There is wonder. There beauty.   

Please remind me of this when I forget it. I have in the past, and I know I will in the future.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Let's Talk Larynx

When hearing conspiracy theories about certain world events we won't discuss here, there are often two views: LIHOP and MIHOP, or "Let it happen on purpose" or "Made it happen on purpose". I think these two terms are very useful in discussing vocal technique.

I think most singers and instructors would agree that the best vocal result occurs when pharyngeal space is optimized by the position of the soft palate and the larynx.  The problem is almost always in how that is accomplished. I myself was taught early to force a low larynx (MIHOP), which resulted in excess tension, even if the resulting sound was temporarily slightly improved. The long-term result is more and more tension, growing barriers such as what I call the brick wall between me and any kind of a high voice, and a wobble.  I could easily manufacture a temporarily pleasing sound, but the end result was not good.

On the other hand, there have been times when fortune has favored me temporarily with enough ease and relaxation that the optimal pharyngeal space was achieved accidentally (LIHOP). I was a little disconcerted. In fact, there have been moments of vocal freedom when I was actually made dizzy by the sensations.  

Singers and teachers talk LOW LARYNX, LOW LARYNX, LOW LARYNX all the day long. Some very popular singers have a sound that seems manufactured to me, so I suspect they might have found a way to MIHOP while keeping a necessary degree of freedom. More power to them. On the other hand, there are successful singers who sound as if they have found a way to LIHOP, who receive criticism because some don't think their vocal sounds are dark enough--not enough manufactured sound. Where is the balance?

Manuel Garcia uses a laryngoscope
Where, indeed, is the balance? I think it is different for every singer. I could digress at length about pedagogical methods. (For the record, I think "Imitate me!" is a ridiculous method and those teachers who practice it should be tortured and then starved to death in the Tower of London. I do not exaggerate when I say this.) It is not an accident that some singers learn to associate pharyngeal space with bad tension and a larynx that is pushed down by conscious effort.  I am full of resentment that I was over 40 before someone taught me that a laryngeal position that is not ideal is the result of excess tension. Some teachers have told me that uncomfortable tension was a fact of life. 

Clearly I favor the LIHOP approach. I think the objective is to remove barriers to LIHOP rather than to MIHOP. There is a philosophy that works for me in most areas of life when I practice it: take the right actions and let go of the results. In fact, one of the best teachers I ever had taught her own version of that philosophy, stating that even judging by sensation over sound might not serve the singer consistently, because human bodies are not by nature consistent.  Those who are familiar with the Serenity Prayer might have a little practice in trying to determine which things they can or should control and which they can't. Remember that the last line of that prayer refers to the wisdom to know the difference.

Where am I going with all of this? What is my intention in writing this article? In truth, part of it is just to vent, but I also want people to talk about these things. I think there is too much "This is my method--either it works or it doesn't!" in this world. (Not to mention the often associated "If it doesn't work, the problem is you!") I think there is not enough discussion about finding what works for the individual student. In fact, I truly believe the most successful teachers are those who find the best way to connect with the student to communicate the principles of taking the right actions and allowing favorable results to happen. We are focused too much on product over process, when ensuring the most healthy process, although sometimes more difficult, often results in a greater, more consistent, and longer lasting product.

There it is. Take what you like and leave the rest.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

An operatic bucket list

I watch many YouTube videos, in part because I create them myself and in part because there are videos on so many subjects. Also, I have not seen any reason to watch television lately, since I have no interest in watching people die loudly or overact to very bad writing and even worse music. But I digress. 

I was privileged to meet 
David Lomeli, who had recently
triumphed as Nemorino at NYCO.
Now he is a very successful
opera administrator.

One type of video that has fascinated me much of late has been travel videos. I am fascinating by first-person accounts of extreme luxury airliner trips, overnight train trips that include leisure, luxury, and scenery, and even inconvenient and uncomfortable flights taken in order to reach some obscure location or fly on some obscure aircraft. I have come to understand that travel aficionados, especially aviation geeks (as they happily call themselves), seem to have a lifetime check list in the same way that bird watchers keep lists of birds they have spotted. Although I am not a travel geek, I love learning about these remote destinations and find some of the stories fascinating. (There was one where a British gentleman deliberately placed himself overnight in the city with the least visited airport in Alabama. I don't question his choice in destination, but I do wish the poor dear had been better advised when choosing franchise dining and lodging.) 

All of this made me think.  Do I have an operatic bucket list?  I have had a wide and varied experience in opera:

  • I was in the chorus for the 1987 US premiere of a newly found Rossini opera, Bianca e Falliero.
  • I have seen at least three different productions of Porgy and Bess, when many people have never seen one.
  • I have interviewed some amazing opera personalities for this blog and for other publications--the likes of Lisette Oropesa, Ian Bostridge, Lawrence Brownlee, Angela Meade, Michael Mayes, Christine Goerke, Francesca Zambello, etc.
  • I saw the premiere production of an opera by Jake Heggie that placed Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade side by side.  
  • I also saw Mr. Heggie's monumental Dead Man Walking, the adaptation of the same book by Sister Helen Prejean on which the movie is based. The memory still moves me to tears.
  • I have become friends with some singers based on things I have written, and I have seen my quotes on the web sites of some very impressive singers.
  • I have met and had the opportunity to study with amazing singers from previous generations like James King (bad choice as a voice teacher), Virginia Zeani (bad choice to not study with her), Camilla Williams (teacher of some good friends, and very kind to me), etc.
  • As a student I have seen amazing things. The room where Franz Schubert was born. Actual manuscripts by Mozart. Some instruments used by musical greats.
  • I have witnessed world premieres of operatic works (most of which quickly descended into much-deserved obscurity)
  • I have seen performances in some of the most amazing venues in the world:  the Met (of course), the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg, the Bavarian State Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, etc.
  • I have seen quite a few productions of Norma, another opera that is not often produced, but which any frequent reader will recognize as my favorite opera of all time.
  • I have sung on the stage at Carnegie Hall. (OK, as part of the NYC Gay Mens Chorus, and even then just for a special event, not as a regular member, but boy howdy, didn't it take my breath away to walk on that stage!)
  • I have produced low-budget shows featuring young professionals, and created shows I can reflect upon with pride.  (On a production level. I wasn't good with money.)

What are some regrets, goals I have never met, some experiences I have never had?
  • The amazing Deborah Voigt.
    I saw her solo show
    "Voigt Lessons" at
    I am filled with regret that I have never sung the Verdi Requiem. Chorus or soloist. As much choral gigging as I have done, how is that possible?
  • As a naive 17-year old student with a limited entertainment budget, I once chose a P.D.Q. Bach concert over a Joan Sutherland concert.
  • I have never been to La Scala or Verona or Paris or even Covent Garden. I saw Covent Garden, but never attended a performance there.
  • I never saw Luciano Pavarotti live. Placido Domingo. Leontyne Price. Renatta Scotto. I saw Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills in concert but not on the opera stage.
  • I was never able to meet great opera and opera journalism figures who are long gone now.
In the regrets column, most would expect me to write about my unfulfilled dreams as an opera singer, but a long, long, long life and much reflection have taught me that such a life would have been a horrible fit.  I was taught poor vocal skills and very, very poor life skills, and absolutely no business skills--I'm sure I would have unconsciously engineered an early, very dramatic demise! 

Angela Meade, whom I have 
seen as Norma, Alice Ford,
Elvira in Ernani, and whom
I have interviewed for this 

What goals are still attainable at my age and possible with my budget?  None.  However, if budget were not an issue, I might consider the following:
  • More visits to Salzburg, Vienna, Munich, with the  opportunity to enjoy the full season.
  • Visits to other great opera houses and venues, both those I have seen and those I haven't.
  • The opportunity to renew contact and friendship with some singers I have met along the way, and to establish new friendship with other opera figures.
  • Greater real-life access to public performance. (This pandemic and the isolation of living in a coastal NC city have both taken their tolls on live performance.)

We all have these lists.  Goals met and unexpected achievements and experiences.  Goals unmet.  Goals that might still be met.  I would love to hear yours.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

I shouldn't have liked that, but I did

Beloved readers, I have not posted here as often as I would like. I could explain the various life dramas I've seen, but explanations are not excuses, so let's move on.

Most who know me know that I identified very strongly with both Tamino and Nemorino back in the day. In fact, this blog might very well have been named Nemorinophile had I not been obsessed with Mr. Mozart's other charms. So L'Elisir d'Amore is a favorite of mine--always has been, always will be.  Friday evening, in my ever-present search of balm for my weary soul, I happened upon a perfectly charming abridged production of L'Elisir d'Amore from Opera Zuid and the Dutch National Touring Opera in The Netherlands. The cast are all members of the  Dutch National Opera Studio.  As usual, the source was  

José Romero as Nemorino and
Julietta Alksanyan as Adina
Photo: Bjorn Frins
Many who know me also know my limited patience with updated productions. This threatened to be one of those production I would decline to write about.  True to my Southern roots, if I don't have anything nice to say, I'll say it in whispers and trust that it will spread around, rather than taking responsibility for my words. I'm just built that way.

But this was charming. In a nutshell, as most of us know, the story is this: boy and girl have been friends since infancy and everybody for miles around knows they are meant for each other, but the girl has an independent streak and won't be told anything. It's only when she sees her bosom buddy would prefer to die as a soldier far away than to live with the torture of unrequited love that the girl realizes she does, in fact, love him.  Happy ending ensues, with lots of beautiful singing.  

In this production, everything took place in the girl's (Adina's) apartment, and she and all the other characters are students and hangers-on of students.  Predictably, Adina's apartment reflects her status as the daughter of a wealthy man. All of the characters, including Nemorino, appear to be Adina's entourage members.  Does it work?  Not completely.  Was I charmed?  Yes.

Vocally, the star of the show was José Romero as Nemorino.  As well it should be. His beautiful and even singing, his skillful portrayal of Nemorino, his portrayal of Nemorino's abject despair and desperation won me over completely.  I quite enjoyed Julietta Aleksanyan as Adina, and only in my bitchiest moments would I mention this is not Covent Garden-level singing.  The others, including Martin Mkhize as Belcore and Sam Carl as Dulcamara, deserve recognition as well.

Updated productions. Ho-hum. But this worked in some ways. I do think Director Marcos Darbyshire and Music Director Enrico Delamboye deserve accolades, as well as the other members of the creative team. I would still prefer to see something inventive with a traditional production, but I would also recommend viewing this production if at all possible.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Those moments......

I've been watching a video over and over lately because it moves me deeply. Many might be surprised. It's a heavy metal arrangement of the 2nd movement of the Brahms Requiem. I am at a complete loss to understand why, but even after having viewed it repeatedly, I can not see it without sobbing. Is it because of my history with that work, and with large scale choral music in general? Is it because I know what the words mean? "Und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müßen--And all sorrow and sighing shall flee away"  I don't know. I don't have to know. I just have to come back and cry as often as I need. I will link that video at the end of this post.

Lauren Worsham in Dog Days at
Fort Worth Opera
Photo:  Fort Worth Opera
Of course this got me thinking about other moments in live or recorded performance that have moved me beyond measure. I hope, as people who appreciate music and communication, you have had similar experience. I can only list a few:

  • In 2015 I went to the Fort Worth Opera Festival, and saw an amazing new work called Dog Days by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek. The premise was a USA after a war on our own lands, and a family living in poverty and hardship in the aftermath. There was a scene of unimaginable pain where the teenage daughter of the family sings that the hardship and starvation has finally left her feeling beautiful. I can't write of it now without getting very emotional.
  • Everybody and his brother knows of my passion for the opera Norma. When I saw the opera in Washington in 2013, it might have been the first time I fully appreciated Norma's words, "Son io!" in the last act. She admits her guilt, having betrayed her vows as a priestess and borne two children with the enemy Roman consul. She is ready to die alongside her lover. I was wrecked. There are some moments that just do that. (Angela Meade, directed by Francesca Zambello, if you're wondering.)
  • I have always been a big supporter of smaller opera companies that give younger, aspiring singers opportunity. I have worked for some behind the scenes. This happened when I saw the Bronx Opera perform La Boheme in 2013. Even though there were flaws in the production, some of them unforgivable, I was moved beyond measure in the last act. I was in tears when Mimi died. (Sorry if that's a spoiler.) But I was overcome with sobbing when Mimi was present at the curtain call, not dead after all. I honestly had never experienced La Boheme so deeply before.
  • I have also written at length about the Verdi Requiem. A few years ago I started what I intended to be a "Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems" series. I couldn't make it to 10 days because it was so overwhelming emotionally. Also, life. You know how annoying that can be. Well this review was the first of the series. Van Karajan at the podium and some of the most stellar singers of the age as soloists, as well as a first-rate chorus and orchestra. I honestly could not move as I watched this performance on DVD. It was simply amazing.
  • In 2011 I saw the New York City Opera (it was a thing back then) debut of the amazing tenor David Lomeli, as Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore.  It was magic. There was a moment after that aria known to us all, Una furtiva lagrima, when the applause was thunderous and very long-lasting, and David wrapped his arms around himself in a big self-hug. Even the NY Times reporter couldn't tell whether he was laughing or crying. He later told me it was both! It was his moment of arrival, and I felt lucky to have witnessed it. As with all of these stories, the memory brings tears to my eyes, and I am very fortunate to call David a friend now. (I can not say what names he might call me!)

I have so many stories--I haven't even mentioned the many amazing productions I've seen at Glimmerglass or one or two that I myself produced with a small group in NYC--but what strikes me today is that they are all quite some time ago. I need to fix that. I actually have written in the past year about similar moving experiences. Nowadays, living in coastal NC, most performance that I see is online. That's OK. I just need to do more of it. 

What about you? Do you have similar experiences?

The video that started this whole line of thought:

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Pushing the boat out.......

I am once again reminded why I call myself a bel canto bear. I have never made any secret of the fact that Norma is my favorite opera in all the world, but recently I've been listening to a lot of Donizetti. In addition to the perfectly delightful L'Elisir d'Amore, there are the more dramatic operas, including those those that are erroneously called the Tudor Trilogy: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux. (For the record, there is no evidence that Donizetti conceived of these three operas as a trilogy, so I call them them a nilogy.) 

I bring up bel canto operas because it seems that this extremely difficult repertoire is where singers try to expand their reach. A few years ago there were lots of big-name sopranos who thought they could sing Anna Bolena, but couldn't.  Then the same thing happened with Norma.  On the other hand, I can recall hearing people  in Verdi operas singing much better than expected, and upon further investigation learning they'd sung many bel canto roles. "Of course he sang that so beautifully--look what he's done before!" I can also recall hearing singers I'd considered OK as Verdi singers shine in glorious ways that were totally unexpected when they assayed bel canto roles. Much as I would like to have one very famous soprano as an ally in this blog, I have written herein that she was OK in Verdi but amazing as Norma and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. I would also include one whom we might call the world's reigning Amneris and Azucena, upon hearing her as Adalgisa. I was amazed--a new way in which she was fabulous! I can not fail to give credit to a tenor who in recent years has left the lighter bel canto and Mozart roles to attack the heavier bel canto and Mozart roles such as Idomeneo, and to and also another associated with lighter roles who was amazing as Idomeneo. It was a surprise to learn that another singer, whose performances in lighter repertoire at the Met were beyond reproach, heavenly, was also absolutely stunning in larger repertoire at opera houses that were not the size of football fields. 

Let's face it. When it is a struggle to resist metaphors that include having to change my pants, we're talking hot stuff.  

On the other hand. Well. There is a particular sound I detect when a singer, even a singer I admire, is singing something that doesn't fit. The vibrato becomes faster and the timbre takes on a quality I might call brittle. Instead of listening and watching and being involved in the story, one becomes involved in the secondary story of whether the singer can get through the role or make that one difficult passage that is coming up. I don't like that experience, and I resent it when opera productions put me in that situation. Yes, the singer might perform the role beautifully, and with the finest of artistic and dramatic qualities, but to me there is more. Recall in my early days I only thought about beauty of singing, and it came with maturity that I considered other factors that might, on occasion, forgive a less beautiful tone. But really. We always knew Maria Callas, queen of the Less Beautiful Tone, would make it to the end of the opera, but we aren't always so confident with some singers we hear today.

Where do you draw the line? In today's world we have great singers who rely on beauty of sound alone--and that's OK--and singing actors who rely on stage presence to forgive shortcomings in vocal sound. I suppose it's always been that way. I once interviewed a stage director for these pages, and asked a question about the apparent trend toward acting or concept at the expense of vocal technique, and she stated that a singer who is worried about technique is not going to be able to act very well. If you're worried about the next high note, you can't throw yourself into the director's vision. 

My opinion is this:  Start with a beautiful sound. Always start with a beautiful sound. Whether the acting and characterization skills are there to begin with, are gained concurrently, or come afterward, it is still the beautiful sound that is required. That includes vocal technique and artistic production. One singer who is now known for big, Germanic repertoire, told me that every repertoire requires the presence of voice, the line, the breath that are all part of bel canto technique.  It always comes back to bel canto.  As well it should.


Friday, April 16, 2021

"I shall surely set you free" *offers bread and wine*

Once again, dear readers, I have soothed my weary soul with some amazingly beautiful singing.  Just as in so many of my recent opera posts, this was provided via  a performance of dear Mr. Beethoven's Fidelio.  Current world affairs require keeping everyone at least 6 feet (2 meters) from each other, and this production did not fail in that requirement. However, as with quite a few productions I have seen online in recent months (who goes out of the house now except for groceries, yarn, and liquor?), this restriction was used to great effect by the producers.

The performance was by the Garsington Opera at Wormsley in the UK.  Have a look at this:

Jaquino        Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
Marzelline    Galina Averina
Leonore        Katherine Broderick
Rocco            Stephen Richardson
Don Pizarro    Andrew Foster-Williams
Florestan        Toby Spence
Don Fernando    Richard Burkhard
First Prisoner    Richard Pinkstone
Second Prisoner    Thomas D Hopkinson

Chorus        Garsington Opera Chorus
Orchestra    Philharmonia Orchestra
Music        Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor    Douglas Boyd
Stage Director / Lighting & Projection Designer Peter Mumford
Associate Video Designer William Reynolds
Assistant Conductor & Chorus Master Jonathon Swinard
Assistant Director Cecilia Stinton
Reduced Orchestration Francis Griffin

Leonore is a tremendously challenging role, and I do believe that Katherine Broderick was a very good choice for this production.  Her vocalism and her musicianship were spot-on, and her understanding of a very complex character was quite amazing.  I liked the Rocco of Stephen Richardson, the Marzelline of Galina Averina, and the Jaquino of Trystan Llŷr Griffiths quite a lot.  Mr. Richardson especially played the gentle father figure Rocco, who somehow finds himself in a rather barbaric role, very sympathetically.  

What is it about basses? Why do they think they have to manufacture a sound that will be impressive instead of letting a truly healthy version of the sound God gave them suffice? I don't doubt the artistry of Andrew Foster-Williams (Don Pizzaro), but if my strongest memories from the production are a wobble and a scowl, I'm not sure the artist has achieved success. 

Toby Spence as Florestan
Photo:  Johan Persson

Toby Spence. A lyric tenor I have long admired.  He did a fine job with this role, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise, although the truly dramatic nature of some of the vocal passages did seem a bit beyond his grasp.  I associate him with Tom Rakewell, certain Mozart roles, and the like. The quintessential "English tenor."  I would expect to see a voice like his cast as Jaquino sooner than as Florestan. Yes, I know time will have its way. I'm 58. I'm not unfamiliar with this concept. But even those lyric tenors who have progressed into more italienisch and dramatic territory started out with a sound I don't identify with Mr. Spence. But I haven't kept current with every news item in the opera world in the past few years. I've had a few other matters on my mind. I don't know what he has done since I knew of his Mozart roles at the Met and a few others online. I would in no way say he was a bad Florestan. But remember I studied briefly with James King, one of the finest Florestans of his era.  (Certainly not one of the finest teachers, but I digress.)

The production. This was, of necessity, a concert production, with the 2-meter squares we have come to expect from clever lighting designers. I will say the lighting designer in this case never disappointed and offered occasional insights. In addition, the screen projections behind singers and orchestra were quite effective.  When one could read the text displayed. 

I really liked the quite reduced orchestra under the direction of Douglas Boyd. I was quite often reminded that Beethoven is not nearly so stodgy as I sometimes remember him (certain parts of the 9th symphony), nor as uninspired with voices as I tend to think. (An die Ferne Geliebte.  Genug gesagt!)  

Full cast with lighting effects
Photo:  Johan Persson

I know I sound like a Negative Nelly.   OK, I always sound nelly, but I do sound even more negative than usual in this post.  I really don't want to give that impression. 

When I realized that Leonore and Rocco were offering Florestan bread and wine at the same time they were supposed to be digging his grave, I was in tears. When Leonore revealed her identity and Florestan realized what has happened and very nearly left his 6 ft x 6 ft block, I nearly lost it.  

Did this production move me?  Hell to the yeah, as the young people probably said about 20 years ago.  (Who can keep up?)  Would I recommend it?  Oh yes!  Should you view it?  Didn't I already say yes?!

Saturday, March 20, 2021

I'm a 'llegory man

It's not often I praise a radically updated production of a traditional opera.  It is also not often that I find myself sobbing and laughing at the same time while watching an opera. Saturday evening I experienced the convergence of these two unlikely events in the form of a production of Die Zauberflöte from the Macerata Opera Festival in Italy--hence the title Il Flauto Magico and the Italian names for all the characters.  As with many productions I write about recently, this was courtesy of the amazing site

Tamino and Papageno
Updated productions.  Heavy sigh.  Far too often they fail to achieve the goal that is usually stated, of making relationships and social roles more clear.  Very often they distract with their attention--or more likely inattention--to historical detail.  Much as I appreciate Jackie O style costumes for women, I've seen enough productions of Aida and Norma to understand the role relationships without the aid of a pillbox hat.  I don't need to see Marriage of Figaro on a tennis court, to quote an opera director I once interviewed.

But.  This.  Was.  Brilliant.  I was resistant at first but the production won me over.  The setting appears to be the scene of an historic site that is being sacrificed to modern business needs.  There is a camp of protesters and homeless people, and a chorus of people in all walks of life, from church leaders of many different faiths to business men to anything you can imagine.  The three doors of the Temple of Wisdom have symbols representing finance (a Euro symbol), commerce (an Apple logo), and the church (wait for it........yes, a cross!).  Not surprisingly, the door where Tamino gains entry is the door of commerce.  At points in the production the finance set piece turns around to reveal missiles--big surprise--and the church set piece reveals a huge statue of the Virgin.  Comment on that could take up another entire post, so I'll refrain.  At the very climax, the commerce (Apple logo) set piece turns around to reveal a tree.  During the trial scene, Pamina plucks an apple from the tree to share with Tamino.  Some might say heavy handed, but we live in a heavy-handed age.  (It is also worth noting that Papageno's false attempt at suicide also involves that tree.)

Papageno and Pamina

I could write about the many details that made this production brilliant, but the best way to summarize it is this:  It made me think about Die Zauberflöte, which I know like the back of my hand (have you seen the name of this blog?), in a new way.  That is indeed an accomplishment.

The singing.  Usually I lead off with the singing, but the fact that I haven't done so here is no slight to the singing I heard in this production. I shall list all the credits below and refer to each singer by character name here.  First, Tamino.  One of the most difficult tenor roles ever.  F@#$#^%$ Parsifal.  This is hard work!  Giovanni Sala was very pleasing vocally and quite equal to the unusual acting demands of the avant-garde setting.  I hope I will hear him again.  Pamina was pleasingly sung by Valentina Mastrangelo. I can't say I quite liked all the things the director asked her to do, but she was certainly a good actress.  And in all fairness, this was not a simpering Pamina who leaves one wondering just what is wrong with the girl.  Sarastro was quite commandingly sung and acted by Antonio di Matteo, attired in suit and tie like a televangelist.  (Yes, there was a suited televangelist element among the faith leaders I mention above.)  The Queen of the Night was sung very well by Tetiana Zhuravel, but I would like to have seen more madness.  (Kenneth Branagh, your movie has spoiled me for all other Queens of the Night!)  

The three gates at the Temple of Wisdom

Quibbles?  Very few once I understood what was going on.  (Program notes?  I don't need no stinkin' program notes!)  One or two vocal flaws, but this was regional/festival/young artist opera, not Covent Garden. One or two directorial choices I might want to discuss.  Nothing really worth talking about.  

In summary, I highly recommend seeking this video on if you want beautiful singing and a production that makes you think.

Following is a cast/credit list directly from the web site:

Tamino:  Giovanni Sala  

Papageno:  Guido Loconsolo

The Three Ladies:  Lucrezia Drei, Eleonora Cilli, Adriana Di Paola

Astrifiammante:  Tetiana Zhuravel

Monostato:  Manuel Pierattelli

Pamina:  Valentina Mastrangelo

The Three Geniuses:  Ilenia Silvestrelli, Caterina Piergiacomi, Emanuele Saltari

Oratore:  Marcell Bakonyi

Sarastro:  Antonio Di Matteo

Papagena:  Paola Leoci

Sacerdote / Armigero:  Marco Miglietta

Armigero:  Seung Pil Choi

Chorus:  Coro Lirico Marchigiano “V. Bellini”

Orchestra:  Orchestra regionale delle Marche

Text Fedele d’Amico (Translation):  Graham Vick, Stefano Simone Pintor (Dialogues)

Conductor:  Daniel Cohen

Director:  Graham Vick

Set Designer:  Stuart Nunn

Costume Designer:  Stuart Nunn

Lighting Designer:  Giuseppe di Iorio

Movement Director:  Ron Howell


Saturday, March 6, 2021

You ripped my heart out and stomped that sucker flat!

 You just sorta stepped on my aorta......

I quote a song popular in my youth.  (When they played music on the theorbo and viola da gamba.)  I say it because a good performance of La Traviata leaves me with exactly that feeling. I did have that feeling at the end of the La Traviata I viewed Friday evening.

Socially distanced La Traviata
Photo:  Teatro Réal
I write about a recorded performance of La Traviata I viewed on, one of my favorite opera web sites.  This came from Madrid's Teatro Réal, recorded in July, 2020.  It was a semi-staged concert performance. This seemed to be awkward at first, but in the end the performances transcended the limited performance format.  

The setting suggested La Traviata sets, with the belle epoque (if that is the correct term) furniture pieces down stage and opera chorus on platforms upstage.  The lighting design made clear the currently necessary social distancing of six feet (two meters), with stark red lines outlining squares in which each chorus member was allowed to exist. No principals touched each other. (In fact, when a footman brings a note to Alfredo in Act I, Scene II, no actual note changed hands.)  This took some getting used to.  I do, however, credit the creative team at Teatro Réal, including Director Leo Castaldi and Lighting Designer Carlos Torrijos, with creating a very effective performance that was both safe for all involved and remarkably moving for the audience.

Michael Fabiano and Marina Rebeka
Photo:  Teatro Réal
I have learned over time that when I am focused on vocal technique, I am not terribly involved emotionally.  All of the cast were fine singers, but I had the feeling that the semi-staged setting felt awkward at the start. In Act I I had thoughts like, "Oh, I've heard him sing better!" or, "She didn't take that optional high note!"  In Act III I was sobbing.  Everyone came alive vocally and dramatically as the opera grew and flowered.  Soprano Marina Rebeka, whom I did not know, grew into an amazing Violetta.  A beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, this singing actress moved me to tears more times than I can count in Acts II and III.  In the Act II party scene, after Alfredo has insulted her to the core and she is on the floor in shame and grief, Ms. Rebeka gave us a meltingly beautiful and heartbreaking appeal that touched the heart visually, vocally, and dramatically.  Michael Fabiano as Alfredo also warmed up vocally and dramatically as the evening progressed. In the party scene I mention, his regret and shame over his actions is heartbreaking, as well.  I had seen him sing Alfredo before (see this link) and I won't say this was the best singing I've heard from him, but he still had me in tears.  This is what matters.  

Baritone Artur Rucinski was a fine Germont vocally.  Of course, because of social distancing, he could not embrace Violetta as a daughter, which left one with an even stronger longing for him to do so.  I've often written that I am not of one mind about Germont as a character. Is he a controlling jackass, manipulating Violetta into leaving Alfredo and then pretending remorse (with predictable "Look how sorry I am!" comments) in the last act?  Does he develop a true affection for Violetta?  I'm not entirely sure I want complete answers to these questions, because it is questions and not answers that make compelling drama.  And God knows I loves me some drama!

The chorus and orchestra of Teatro Réal (I sort of want to continue showing off my ability to do an accent aigu on my Mac keyboard)  were of course wonderful.  Conductor Nicola Luisotti is worthy of great praise. I highly recommend watching this production.