Archive for October, 2007

Sarah Treem’s A Feminine Ending tells the story of Amanda, a young graduate of music who wants to be a composer, but is confronted with a world where there is not necessarily a place for a woman. This seems not to be a problem for the playwright herself: Treem’s masters the art of intelligent and insightful dialogues and some of the images evoked in her text are extraordinarily sensitive, although some twists in the plot seem contrived and rushed, such as Amanda’s mailman “old flame”‘s explanation of linguistics or the too-perfect-to-be-believable parallel between mother and daughter’s artistic gifts. That said, if one overlooks the sharp angles, there really is a lot to enjoy in “A Feminine Ending”.

As usual in casts in which older and younger generations of actors are together on stage, the veterans do overshadow the newcomers. Both Marsha Mason and Richard Masur offer disarmingly spontaneous and touching performance as Amanda’s parents, adding naturalness often missing in the lines written for their roles. Gillian Jacobs tends to underline her dramatic gestures too heavily in the kind of self-explanatory acting often found in American theatres, but it cannot be denied she has an engaging presence, an excellent voice and is also really cute. I do hope to see her again on stage. Alec Beard has the difficult task of portraying the rather cliché-ed role of the rock-star-to-be fiancé. The lack of depth and predictability of this character is actually the weak-link of the play, and only a more experienced actor would have found variety where there is none. Joe Paulick has more luck with the mailman boyfriend from high school days, bue he also succombs to the sitcom acting-style.

Blair Brown’s direction is praiseworthy in its directness and economy of means. One can see she gave her actors all the space they needed, what is particularly positive in the case of Mason. Cameron Anderson’s simple but effective sceneries offer smart solutions fo the different settings.

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Maybe because she comes from Argentina, director Lillia Groag was able to portray the rotten charm of corruption without falling either in the trap of moralising or draining away the nastiness to make it funny. But that does not explain entirely the success of the New York City Opera production of Agrippina – Ms. Groag is a brilliant director for actors, making the cast not only act with unfailing comedy timing but also in an uniform coherent stylistic approach. It is only a pity that she could not get better set and costume designers. The gowns seemed to belong from styles ranging from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, while the sceneries had a certain 1970’s approach to classical stylisation. I can hardly see how this could work – and the immediate impression is that the whole thing looks dull and kitsch. When it comes to Agrippina’s costumes, they were often plainly speaking ugly – and this was particularly harmful since Nelly Miricioiu is some decades older than the caracter as portrayed by Grimiani. The audience could feel puzzled by the fact that this frumpy old lady was getting so much attention. That said, an alluring voice could have done the trick, but I am afraid those days are over for Miricioiu.

The Romanian soprano’s middle voice has become rather colourless and not entirely connected to a juiceless low register – and her top notes are invariably hooty. A random approach to pitch allied to clouded diction resulted lifeless recitatives – and one knows how recitatives are important in this of all operas. Considering this singer’s past achievements, it is sad to realize only her intense acting and ease with passagework survived her bel canto days. Next to her, the beautiful Heidi Stober sounded even more pleasing than she naturally is. Her lyric soprano is creamy and flexible and she has feeling for Handelian phrasing. Only her top register still neeeds more freedom and smoothness. If she succeeds in rounding up this problem, she will certainly go places.

In the role of Nero, the aptly androgynous and really young-looking Jennifer Rivera caused a flashing impression with her warm mezzo and impressive coloratura. She definitely belongs in this repertoire. David Walker’s gentle countertenor worked to perfection in Ottone’s laments and arie d’affeto, some of the best moments in the afternoon. João Fernandes’s knowledge of baroque style and resonant low notes helped him to create the necessary gravitas for his Claudio, but his ascents to high notes were often woolly. Marco Nisticò was a forceful Pallante and David Korn’s countertenor has particularly velvety top notes.

Ransom Wilson offered a reliable if quite monochromatic view of Handel’s multi-faceted score (edited for the theatrical purposes in this production). His orchestra had a shaky start but raised to the occasion during the performance.

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Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has been chosen as the symbol of the Met’s 2007/2008 season. Natalie Dessay’s face is posted at every bus stop and subway station in Manhattan over the slogan “You’d be mad to miss it”. However, I would say that the whole production team may have exaggerated their focus on madness. Sure Lucia’s theme is the loosening of the title’s role mental health, but as shown in the Met there was madness written all over the place from note one – and that leaves very little space for development. As a result, the audience is perfectly used to Lucia’s drollness in the first act – the rest seems her just another extravagance.

In the Met’s old production, Lucia was first shown as the dictionary definition of the Romantic heroine – lovely, radiant, innocent. Her long scene with Enrico pictured her vulnerability, rather a prey of a dilemma because her brother was not portrayed as a gruesome psycopath but rather a passive-aggressive selfish but not entirely insensitive fellow. The wedding scene revealed a gigantic barely unbearable effort to “do the right thing” until we finally saw the shattering of the Romantic image into semi-grotesque in the mad scene. Although Elizabeth Futral was permanently struggling with her notes, her acting was able to convey all that. Although the production was far from brilliant, it allowed her to do all that. I do not know if Zimmerman’s direction allowed Natalie Dessay to do something of the kind. I have to confess I found her stage performance rather mannered, if skilled and neatly done. I would say more: I could only “get” Dessay’s Lucia from the musical point of view.

Although the French soprano’s high register has seen more focused days, her voice is still lovely and her descent to the lower reaches is now perfectly mastered. Her coloratura remains truly impressive and she can toss in alts whenever they are required. However, what makes her so admirable is her enormous musical imagination and endless tonal variety. Because of that, the wandering of Lucia’s mind were touchingly portrayed in the mad scene – a remarkable feat, especially in a big theatre. All that said, a singing-actress like her should know that bel canto requires tonal variety dictated by the weight of every word in Italian text, a lesson taught by Renata Scotto and observed by Patrizia Ciofi in her video of the French version of this opera. Dessay’s diction is too generalized for that.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani did not seem to be in his best days. His tenor was a bit bottled-up and his phrasing rather unflowing and prone to lachrimosity. In the closing scene, he produced all-right impressive high notes, but legato was still largely absent. He definitely could not dispel the memory of Giuseppe Filianoti’s expressive Edgardo, sung in dulcet voice.

Marius Kwiecien’s forceful bairtone was in healthy shape as Enrico, but his singing was rather one-dimensional. John Relyea offered a far more sensitive performance, but his bass can be somewhat colourless. Stephen Costello, on the other hand, displayed a dark-hued but light tenor that sounds really promising. Provided he is not tempted to sing big lyric roles too early, he will be someone we are going to hear about often.

James Levine proved that Donizetti’s music has plenty to offer in the hands of a great conductor. He provided rich sounds without drowning his singers, opted for sensitive tempi and offered amazing increase in tension in the sextett, one of the best I have ever heard. His partnership with Dessay in the mad scene (done with glass harmonica) was particularly positive.

As to the staging, again I cannot see why the fuss – the solutions for the opening and the Wolf Crag scene are downright cheap, the little comical touches throughout simply distracting and the sceneries could look provincial (especially in the mad scene). Although the old sets did not show an ounce of imagination, their claustrophobic interiors and evocative outdoors produce the right effect more immediately than the new ones – at least for me.

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When I saw Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 2005, I named my review “Contessa, perdono”, because of the words I had written about the evening’s prima donna. Now I repeat the same title because of the words I did write back then. This fall’s reprise had been anounced with Dorothea Röschmann and Isabel Bayrakdarian as mistress and servant in the Almaviva household – an exotic idea considering these ladies’ similarity of Fach. However, Röschmann’s health problems and Bayrakdarian’s pregnancy forced the Met to recast. Therefore, Hei-Kyung Hong, the Met’s resident Countess was called to fill in.

Although Hong’s soprano used to be more crystalline in 2005, these two years must have been very rewarding to the Korean soprano. This afternoon she proved to be an all-round entirely satisfying Countess. As in 2005, her voice is an admirable instrument: at once full and silvery lyric soprano with a very easy and gleaming top register. However, her ability to convey it through Mozartian lines is impressively improved. Maybe I saw her in a bad day in 2005, but the difference is simply striking. She is still not entirely at ease with Porgi, amor, but her Dove sono was note-perfect. Hers was a spirited, charming performance – and her stage persona could not be more graceful. I doubt that Röschmann would have been better, judging from her Salzbug DVD with Harnoncourt.

The “replacement” Susanna is also a true find. The young and volatile Lisette Oropesa from New Orleans has the proper quicksilvery voice, idiomatic Italian, complete grasp of style, enough cutting edge to pierce through the orchestra and a most likeable personality. In her Met debut, Anke Vondung offered an intense and irresistible Cherubino. Her Non so più was a bit thick-toned but Voi che sapete was beautifully sung. If I am not more enthusiastic, it is because I have witnessed the incomparable Joyce DiDonato’s Met debut in the same role in 2005.

There are plenty of Figaros more richly sung than Erwin Schrott’s – if my memory does not fail me, Luca Pisaroni’s performance in 2005 was rather more consistent too. But the Uruguayan bass-baritone’s stage charisma is an undeniable asset. With his neverending imagination, he illuminates Lorenzo da Ponte’s text with fresh new ideas throughout. Also, his ability to interact and to extract the best from his stage partners is praiseworthy, particularly in what refers to his Susanna, with whom she formed a vivacious couple. I am afraid Michele Pertusi is not in the level of the other singers – his slightly veiled bass is not devoid of charm but his whole approach is too buffo for this role.

Britain’s contribution to this production is far superior in 2007 than in 2005 – Ann Murray is still a formidable Marcellina and Robin Leggate was in particularly strong voice as Basilio. For once it was a pity they they were deprived of their arias.

Back in 2005, Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was considered too fast and nervous – and I have to confess a soft spot for the “tense” approach for this opera. Philippe Jordan’s comfortable, well-organised perspective was too reliable on the cast to produce the necessary sparkle. Differently from 2005, the string playing was often blurred and the brass section again left a lot to be desired.

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Although Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly still seems unconvincing to my eyes (small-scaled for a theatre as big as the Met and often clumsy in its attempt for cleanliness), the musical experience proved to be significantly improved in its 2007 incarnation.

The cast remains light-voiced to the music, but conductor Mark Elder showed understanding of how to accomodate singers’ needs without sacrificing his orchestra. The gentler string playing helped otherwise to create a colouristic effect with richer woodwind sound. The brass section has seen better days, though – even Puccini’s quote of their national anthem did not seem to inspire these musicians to produce something decent. Comparing Patricia Racette to Cristina Gallardo-Domas in this production’s title role is rather enlightening. Both are lyric sopranos whose voices resent loud and high writing (something a lirico spinto would not need to complain about). Gallardo-Domas’s sound is basically lighter and brighter (therefore, more immediately convencing for a 15-year-old character). However, she is the kind of singer who lets herself be overwhelmed by the dramatic charge (especially in such an opera) and although there is no doubt about her commitment, the sound was often strained and laborious.

Patricia Racette’s creamy soprano, however, is handled with great technical skill. Her low and medium register are natural and pleasant, her phrasing is varied and subtle, the occasional mezza voice properly floated and if many a dramatic passage resulted rather colourless tone, she could produce stunning crescendo effects in climatic top notes. If this intelligent and sensitive artist’s portrayal does not rank with the great Butterflies from the past (is there any exemplary Cio-cio-san around these days?), it is probably because all her skill cannot replace the proper effect a brighter and more concentrated sound would produce in this music (yes, as far as lyric sopranos are concerned, I am speaking of Victoria de los Angeles).

The only remainder from the original cast, Maria Zifchak proved her Suzuki gained intensity since last year and if she could work a bit more on her Italian, she would have been excellent. Roberto Alagna is far from the most musicianly or elegant among tenors, but his voice is often pleasant on the ears – and he has the today rare ability of giving life to the text, making for a particularly friendly approach to this rather unlikable role. That said, his high notes were mostly congested and unflowing. I wonder how he can sing Manrico this way. Finally, Luca Salsi’s forceful baritone and crispy delivery of the Italian text were most welcome.

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In those days when singers were confined in specific repertoires, all trespassing used to be forbidden in recording studios. We all know that James King sang Otello or that Gundula Janowitz sang Desdemona or that Gwyneth Jones was a noted Aida – but they have rarely been invited to sing these roles in studio. I guess Walter Legge was the first guy to break this rule – his wife was inserted in at least two important “Italian” studio recordings, Karajan’s Falstaff and the Turandot with Maria Callas (not to mention all those Verdi Requiems). He also invited Christa Ludwig to sing Adalgisa in Callas’s second Norma. He had Nicolai Gedda singing Rossini (again with Callas) and R. Strauss’s Capriccio (with Scharzkopf). Then we had famous American singers who would sing different repertoires – the Verdian soprano par excellence, Leontyne Price, is Leinsdorf’s Ariadne for Decca, Sherill Milnes did record (again) Leinsdorf’s Salome etc.

It is curious that two of the leading mezzo sopranos of their days happened to be American – Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett – and never made into a German opera recording in studio. In the case of Bumbry, this is particularly bizarre, since she was the favourite pupil of one the most famous German singers in XXth century, which is Lotte Lehmann. It is even stranger the fact that she did record Lieder by Schumann (and maybe Brahms) and also La Forza del Destino sung in German. But not one opera by Strauss or Wagner – and she did sing Salome and Tannhäuser on stage (and also Klytämnestra in Strauss’s Elektra in the end of her career). I reckon she would have been wonderful as Octavian, Ariadne (both as Ariadne or the Composer), Kundry, Ortrud, Fricka etc…

In the case of Shirley Verrett, the story is even sadder. Although she was noted for her performances in French roles (in France too), I might be mistaken – but there is not one studio recording in this repertoire with her . And she was a famous Dalila (as we can see twice on video), Sélika (as seen on video) and Carmen (only available in pirate recordings). There is not one record of her German roles (I’m not counting one tiny valkiry in Stokowski’s Walkürenritt).

Actually, when I say “German roles”, I might be indulging in exaggeration. I only know one German role of hers – which is the title role in Beethoven’s Fidelio. I have always been curious about this performance and thanks to a generous friend I was able to listen to an in-house recording of her performance of April 17th 1982 at the Met. The recorded sound is reallly, I mean REALLY bad, but one can see that Bernard Haitink was in fiery disposition. His conducting there is far more exciting than in his (very good) recording for Philips in Dresden with Jessye Norman. The cast is mostly undistinguished – John Macurdy is a realiable Rocco and Judith Blegen is a charming if microscopic Marzelline. It is difficult to say anything about these singers’ interpretation: the sound does not allow enough tone to their voices and they sound really distant most of the time. But one thing is evident – rarely has any singer dealt with the difficulties in the writing of the part of Leonore as nimbly as Verrett. Her high register is amazingly resilient and forceful. Her top notes are thrilling and dependable. The quartett Er sterbe is particularly successful. I am curious to hear the opinion of someone who actually saw her live in this role. With this in-house recording, it is difficult to say much – but this is tempting enough. In any case, it must be noted that climbing up to soprano Fach was not healthy for both Bumbry and Verrett’s careers in what regard recordings. I cannot recall any official release featuring any of these singers in a 100% soprano role. There is Bumbry’s Venus and Verrett’s Lady Macbeth and Adalgisa, but these roles are bi-Fach. Considering the quality of some people who actually made into studios those days, I guess it is OUR loss.

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Poveri si…

Although it has more than a splash of kitsch, Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is a beautiful opera – especially the music written for the soprano in the leading role. Everbody loves the aria Io sono l’umile ancella, but I’m afraid her final aria Poveri fiori is my favourite with its hypnotic ostinato-like accompaniment, a touching moment which – I would discover – is rarely really touchingly performed.

Some time ago I gave a friend a CD of beautiful arias and Orchesterlieder in order to make her more curious about lyric repertoire and I was really happy she did enjoy much of what I have recorded there. So I had this idea of making a second CD and the first thing I wanted to record there was precisely Adriana’s Poveri fiori.

My only complete recording used to be Levine’s with Renata Scotto. She gives a compelling performance and floats unforgettable pianissimi throughout, but whenever she has to sing forte the result is piercingly shrill – so the dynamic contrasts end on sounding like “lovely” vs. “strained”. In the context of the complete performance, this is not a fatal flaw, but for a collection of arias it simply does not work. Maria Callas does fare far better – her approach is more coherent, the contrasted piano and forte moments more integrated, but I still wished Cilea had not prescribed the loud singing passages that only made the soprano strained. So I have decided to make a trade-off for just immaculate singing. After all, the idea is showing my friend what a beautiful aria Poveri fiori is and not highlighting any particular’s singers histrionic skills – and everybody knows that sour top notes are not the best introduction to the world of opera. I was disappointed to discover that the discography is not very rich… I couldn’t find any studio recording with Caballé, and Jane Eaglen was a no-go. So I decided to check Kiri Te Kanawa with Chung. I could imagine it would be elegant if anonymous. Well, not really – the whole thing is too heavy for her voice, the low phrases are particularly ineffective and the absence of interpretation does make one prone to criticize the results. So I’ve read somewhere I should check Renée Fleming in her “Homage to the diva” disc. I have to confess she surprised me – the voice is at its golden-toned best and she deals with the difficult spots expertly, offering inteligent replacements for true lirico spinto singing. However, her interpretative touches are so heavily underlined and (maybe intentionally, who knows?) diva-like that in the end very little spontaneity remained to make the experience really moving.

Then this idea occured to me – I must have Renata Tebaldi somewhere. That was not true – I only had Io sono l’umile ancella. A friend of mine finally found it on the Internet, but the bit-rate was too low. In any case, that was it – for once the contrasts between piano and forte do not disturb the purity of tone but on the contrary highlight the musical and dramatic point on not calling the attention to themselves from the technical point of view. Also the naturalness of delivery of the Italian words, but most of all – the miraculous blend of warmth and instrumental poise. I know Tebaldi had her wooden moments on extreme top notes, left something to be desired in flexibility and had this hit-or-miss pitch in high notes in the last phase of her career, but this woman’s musicality is amazing!

It must be a satisfaction for the pro-Callas party in the Callas/Tebaldi feud when one is forced to acknowledge that the whole damned business caught Tebaldi in disadvantage: Callas was the theatrical genius, the responsible for the revolution that restored bel canto works to their proper stylistic locus and she also happened to feature this rarest of Fächer, which is the soprano drammatico d’agilità. Tebaldi’s talents are, on the otherwise, what critics generally take for granted.

Nobody is born a lyric soprano or a mezzo coloratura or a tenore di forza or a Heldenbariton. Some people are born with the proper anatomic disposition that gives him or her the potential to be a lyric soprano or a mezzo coloratura or a tenore di forza or a Heldenbariton. If this potential is going to be fulfilled – this is a different issue. Many voice students have beautiful tone quality but lack of concentration, irregular technique, poor musicianiship, lack of discipline, impatience etc might cause him or her simply to pull out unlovely singing. Otherwise, other students have voices not particularly remarkable but their dexterity, facility for incorporating technique, hardwork, dedication etc make their singing utterly likeable. The point is – technically accomplished singing is not a God-given quality, but the result of someone’s work. There is a special quality of intelligence involving taking millions of tiny technical and expressive decisions that result beautiful and convincing singing. That is the part generally taken for granted. When critics say “Tebaldi was just an amazing voice”, they are taking for granted her ability to produce singing of superlative musical effectiveness.
Many lirico spinto sopranos have big voices – but very few of them are able to spingere (push) them to louder dynamics with such naturalness and make the heavy demands on their voices spontaneous musical points instead of self-conscious theatrical feats. In this sense, Tebaldi belongs to the great singers of her age (and of all ages). Her miraculous Manon, her exemplary Leonora (Forza) and her noble Desdemona alone would be enough to secure her reputation. And, yes, to my mind, nobody sings Adriana as she does. There might be more intelligent or dramatic performances of the role – Tebaldi sounds like Adriana.

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