Sunday, October 16, 2011


Some local news to catch you up on, but first, the live moviecast of ANNA BOLENA.

Loved it. I emerged newly convinced of the potential for bel canto to convey serious drama. Beverly Sills convinced me of that back in the day, and she was my first and until today only Anna B. I still remember her (in Capobianco's production) giving the guard a big slap at the end of the Big Arrest Scene.

I also retain a vivid aural memory of her "Coppia iniqua," but not, sorry to say, any memory of how she handled it dramatically, other than to say that Beverly never neglected the dramatic side of her bel canto roles.

Anyway, Anna Netrebko nailed it. In the past there has been a spectrum of views on whether she could sing bel canto, with a discernible drift of majority opinion towards approving her as a verismo soprano (and in Russian opera, of course), but not in anything else. But in yesterday's ANNA, the technique-mavens were at least impressed at her progress since her PURITANI a few years ago, and I was just enchanted. Her voice had the richness of Callas at her best, she had trills (real or imitation, I'm not sure, but effective) for "Coppia iniqua," and she had (here we in the movie theaters are privileged) dramatic intensity throughout.

(Another privilege we had: Netrebko doing her "naughty Anna" bit in her pre-curtain interview with Gelb when she turned from him to the camera to add "The Tudors" quietly to her list of preparatory movie-viewing.)

Strong supporting cast throughout. Ildar Adbrazakov is a strong bass-baritone whose Enrico replicated the moody tyrant portrayed by Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons. Note to Gelb and other impresarii, tho': Ildar is a treasure, but he's a bass-baritone, not a bass. In roles that really require a bass, make sure you cast Furlanetto (like Silva in the upcoming ERNANI), or Pape.

Since this opera lacks a no-kidding baritone role, like Enrico Ashton in LUCIA, there is no need to distinguish sharply between the baritone and a bass with whom he shares the stage, such as Raimondo. A bass-baritone Enrico VIII is fine if he's a powerful one like Ildar.

(Ildar would be a perfect Ivan Khovansky in KHOVANSHCHINA -- but hey, crazy Met, you've cast him as Dosifei in the long-awaited KH. revival next spring, with undoubted bass Anatoly Kotscherga as Ivan. Pardon me but I think you're crazy. Should totally be the other way around.)

Stephen Costello's Percy -- ah yes, the voice that made me tweet "omg tenor!" when I was listening casually to the premiere over the 'net. What a gift to the lyric tenor world!

Ekaterina Gubanova was a weak link for me. She has a real mezzo voice -- brava for that -- but the role of "Giovanna" Seymour goes high. Gubanova's voice showed itself dramatic indeed, to the point of harshness at times.

Also: while we all have our potted rants against the "modern trend" of casting by looks, the very fact that I and so many others were watching this live performance in a movie theater shows it's a bit late to lock that particular barn-door, so let me just add that, despite her excellent acting, Gubanova was a few crumpets short of the sort of breakfast for which one could imagine Henry ditching Anne Boleyn.

By chance I picked up an OPERA NEWS from a few months ago and saw that Gubanova was Fricka in La Scala's WALKURE last spring. A good review, and I could easily imagine her being brilliant in that role.

In this run of BOLENA, Gubanova has the disadvantage (for which we must spot her some points) of replacing Latvian lovemuffin Elina Garanca, the Met's new Carmen, who was Jane Seymour to Netrebko's Bolena in a production last spring(?) in Vienna.

Garanca was scheduled for the Met's production too, but, well, l'amour est un oiseau rebel, and La Garanca turned up with a bun in the oven at just a time when the baby-bump would have introduced an unhistorical complication into the already-thick story of Anne, Jane, and Henry. Quite frankly, the opening chorus of "the king's eye turns to another" would, in the age of surtitles/Met-titles, have just slain them in the aisles. Congratulations on the new life coming into the world, Elina, and we'll hope to catch your Seymour in the future when maybe we won't "Sey" so much....

A shout-out, please, to my Twitter friend Keith Miller -- @KeithMillerBass -- whose tweets are full of opera-historical quizzes, and whose performance as Lord Rochford, Anne's brother, showed a fine bass-baritone voice and brought an extra dose of gravitas to the stage.

Tamara Mumford nearly stole every scene she was in as Smeton, and in Eduardo Valdes, who played Hervey, the Met has a new character-tenor of the love-to-hate type.

Marco Armiliato impressed me as a conductor who knows and loves bel canto, and who could and did keep the drama going well.

How well does he know it? Well, you couldn't necessarily tell from the camera coverage of the orchestra, but he conducted the overture without opening his score. This comes from a spy in the house. (My mom likes it when I call her that.) After the overture he started using his score.

(I think there is pith in James Levine's talkback to colleagues who rebuked him for relying on the printed score: "Why not? I can read music.")

The production: dark; the spots of color were rare and presumably deliberate. And why not? Henry's, court historically, was dark, not the place of soon-it'll-be-Shakespeare enlightenment we often see in historical dramas made in the Anglophone world . Costume designer Jenny Tiramani (think Monty Python's Ann Elk, but shorter, and actually knowing her stuff) says the surviving clothes and documentary evidence shows early Tudor courtwear was much darker than you often see depicted: lots of black velvet, black satin, and black silk.

And -- living at the whim a moody tyrant -- it was a scary place to exist. I'm so glad McVicar captured this, and I'm so glad he included (tho' the libretto does not require it) the historical fact that Smeton was tortured. You know that line from A Man for all Seasons? -- Norfolk says it first, to More, in confidence, but Cromwell later repeats it back to Norfolk, in irony, demonstrating the omnipotence of the Tudor spy-state: "This isn't Spain -- this is England!"

My point exactly. Tho' Catholic, I love DON CARLO as much as the next guy -- but I'm glad that Italian opera sometimes puts on stage historical moments that show Reformation-oriented royal courts acting in tyrannical ways too.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Paul Franke, RIP. A staple of my childhood, and of the Met in that era.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

CORNELL MACNEIL, Verdi baritono supremo (and, in retirement, garage woodworker and machine tool guy), 1922-2011. Opera News's "Reunion" interview from 2007, here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

San Francisco RING -- post 1

Travel: fun, not exotic

My daughter and I, almost on a whim, jetted west last week to see the SIEGFRIED and GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG of Cycle 2 of San Francisco's 2011 summer RING.

Why not the whole thing? Cordelia, 16, has seen WALKÜRE several times recently, between the Met and the Virginia Opera. We would both have loved to see RHEINGOLD. But taking one thing with another -- tickets (even if only one for Walküre), and hotel nights (we don't have any apartment to borrow in SF) -- it adds up. Even as it was, it was a splurge, but a very worthwhile one.

(Fwiw, Airtran did an excellent job getting us from southeastern Virginia to SF and back for $400 less then the next best offer; and fore a balance of economy and comfort we can recommend the Opal, on Van Ness Ave. between O'Farrell and Geary Streets, home to Mel's Diner, and within walking distance of the War Memorial Opera House. And of the Catholic Cathedral.)

It was her first, and my second, visit to this city. On our day "off," it was cablecars to the max for Cordelia, so we took the California St. line to Powell St. Finding the northbound Powell St. cars were too crowded, we went south to Union Square, then back up the Powell St. line to Fisherman's Wharf, then back to where we had entered the system at California St. and Van Ness Ave.

But you don't want to read out that, you want to read about ...

The American RING

That's what director Francesca Zambello's production has generally been called. (The production was first developed jointly for San Francisco and Washington, except the recession forced the WNO to relinquish its role after premiering the first three operas: one suspects management issues at WNO had as much to do with it as the recession, which, if anything, his Washington less hard than other parts of the country. Perhaps the full Zambello RING will yet be seen at the Kennedy Center.)

Why American RING? Because the particular Regie at work here -- and yes, it's Regie, but what can I say, it's the good kind! -- is the setting of THE RING, with its swords and spears, in 20th century United States. Bad Regie imposes the director's will and ignores and crowd's out the composer's and librettist's. Good Regie tells the composer's-librettist's story in a way that's different from the way they asked for it to be told, but so that it's still the story they told, and no other. Also, bad Regie throws a lot ooh-aah-gosh-deep elements together and glories in the confusion thus created; good Regie is consistent and well thought-out from beginning to end; even things in it that are surprising make sense in context. Chereau's RING was an example of good Regie. So, very much, is Zambello's.

So, American RING. Alberich is at first a Forty-Niner, panhandling for gold in the Rhine. Among the gods, the ineffectual ones -- Donner and Froh -- are preppies modelling Brooks Brothers country club outfits, and Wotan is the one of their ilk with business sense, and hence a Gilded Age tycoon. They will have to deal, however, with those two great big workers, Fasolt and Fafner, entering in their work-overalls aboard a girder lowered from a high story of the newly completed office building, Valhalla.

In Walküre, Hunding is an Appalachian backwoodsman, whose kin ("Sippe") are all too much around (no need to "turn your steps to the west" to find them: "the West" starts here!), as are the trophy mooseheads on his cabin wall. Act II is split into two sets: first, the CEO suite of Wotan Inc., on which Brünnhilde jumps for her first Ho-jo-to-hos; then, a desolate abandoned area of unfinished (or collapsed?) interstates: the perfect place for the destinies of four people to take sudden and unexpected turns and falls.

The Valkyries are paratroopers who drop onto the stage, goggles and all. Posted along rickety stantions surround the Valkyries' Rock are faces of Valhalla's heroes -- except it is said that the faces are those of real Americans fallen in Vietnam, Iraq, etc. Or so it was said when I saw this Walküre in DC in 2007: as mentioned at the start, I did not see it in SF this time. If I am right about the faces, then a question could be raised. Though very moving at one level, one could ask whether appropriating these faces for a dramatic production (unless of course each of the families individually gave consent) could be considered sailing close to a moral line and maybe even a legal one (invasion of privacy, false light). Just saying. Discuss among yourselves. Beyond any doubt, it's a powerful and moving production. Real fire, too: no elf'n'safety ditziness about that!

Enough for now. In my next post I'll start comment on the Siegfried production and performance from Cycle 2.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

GIORGIO TOZZI, 1923-2011

Funeral services for this great Metropolitan Opera and San Franisco Opera bass, and University of Indiana maestro, were held this morning in Bloomington, IN.

Giorgio was a friend of my parents, and I often heard the story about he almost delivered me: he was being interviewed by my Dad for Living Opera when my Mom went into labor with me.

He was in the first opera I ever saw at the Met (Don Basilio, when I was about four). I refused to believe that he and Basilio were the same guy (really, the idea of taking make-pretend to a Metropolitan scale, with identity-obscuring make-up, sort of stretches a 4-yr-old's mind), so the next time he was over at the apartment, he brought with him the red socks that were part of the Basilio costume in the Eugene Berman production, and then I believed him.

Later he invited me and Dad to visit him in his dressing room before, not after, a performance of NOZZE, so I could learn more about the process of becoming a character. By then he was already Figaro and Boris for me, thanks to the Leinsdorf NOZZE and the Metropolitan Opera Record Club NOZZE and BORIS.

I last spoke to him early in 2008. That was barely two months after my Dad's death, and we had a lot to talk to about. He had "almost delivered" me, and here I was, almost 50, letting him bring me solace. Also, I had seen NYCO's revival of VANESSA the previous November, and I wanted to chat about that. He knew Dick Stilwell, who sang his role of the Old Doctor, so we talked about Stilwell's progress from light baritone to bass-baritone, and how the Old Doctor is kind of zwischenfach anyway, Harvuot understudied it and did some performances, etc. etc.

I mentioned that I had collected some his RIGOLETTOs from the '50s, some with Warren, some with Merrill. That set him off reminiscing about how different those two greats were to work with as Sparafucile. Warren was consumed with the character of Rigoletto. Merrill, more easy-going, maintained greater life/work separation, but when that voice came out...! It was Giorgio who, decades earlier, had coined the phrase "a Stradivarius in his throat" to describe how Merrill got his effects with a deficit of formal training.

Another topic of conversation: Nell Rankin was another family friend, and I have a GIOCONDA where she sang Laura to his Alvise (as she did at his Met debut, but this was some years later). In Act III, he really got scary, and it got to me in a way that scene rarely does. I figured out why, I told him: my emotional reaction had been "Uncle Giorgio is being mean to Aunt Nell!!" He laughed heartily, then said: "When you have a colleague that generous, it makes you generous in return!"

Stepping back a bit, here's how I've long seen the Tozzi legacy, which must be seen alongside that of Siepi. A basso cantante can be "round" or "pointy." I don't mean in personal shape: I mean in quality of voice. A "round" basso cantante voice will be more paternal, more marmoreal, more comfortable venturing into bass-baritone rep (as Tozzi successfully did as Hans Sachs). The "pointy" basso cantante will be bouncier, saucier, a much more natural Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles. Obviously that was Siepi. (His Met Gurnemanz was a great success, but not one I would have predicted, and incidentally, Tozzi ventured into King Marke and Rocco around the same time, 1970. A friend points out that Tozzi too sang Gurnemanz -- but at San Francisco, not at the Met.)

The amazing thing about Pinza had been that he combined "round" and "pointy" in one concentrated essence of what a basso cantante should be. By the mid-50s, he has been replaced by two men instead of one: Siepi replacing him
on the "pointy" side, and Tozzi replacing him on the "round" side.

Inevitably, "Mr. Pointy" (apologies to BTVS fans) can excel in many of "Mr. Round"'s roles, more than the other way around. Thus, both Tozzi and Siepi were great as Padre Guardiano (to take the least "pointy" role I can imagine), while Tozzi was never Siepi's equal as Don Giovanni, and indeed, sang the Commendatore opposite Siepi a few times. Yet there are some roles that are clearly better for "Mr. Round." Tozzi sang Arkel at the Met many times, and I don't think Siepi ever did. You'd think Siepi's Sparafucile (surely the ultimate literally "pointy" part, and recorded by Siepi, though rarely if ever done by him at the Met, I think) would blow Tozzi's out of the "fiume" -- but those '50s recordings I mentioned earlier, and the Perlea studio set, refute that assumption.

Of course they both sang Boris: Siepi first (with Tozzi as a glorious Pimen), and Tozzi later (on the MORC recording, on the NBC Opera Theater version, and finally at the Met ca. 1962). They did the role in different ways: Siepi gave us the tormented ruler; Tozzi gave us the tormented *father.* Both were unutterably great.

(Besides the Washington Post obit linked in my headline, here is another, slightly offbeat one from Gramophone. The special pleading for Nicola Zaccaria is intrusive, but then, the sound of axes grinding is almost as much part of opera as the sound of orchestras tuning!)

RIP, "Uncle Giorgo."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Liveblogging RHEINGOLD b'cast

* Prelude: smattering of applause at about point where set becomes fully visible. Not strictly Wagnerian, but I'm not going to tut-tut at a matinee audience having a good time and showing appreciation for this production -- a novel one criticized by some who criticized Schenck/Schneider-Siemssen for its stodginess, and admired by others, like me, who loved the Schenk prodn like an old teddy bear.

EDITED TO ADD: A friend who possesses the charism of opera-nerd infallibility points out: "The applause greeted the entrance of the Rhinemaidens 'flying' on their wires. It's an excellent effect."

* Eric Owens rules. Can't believe that he drew more snarks than any other cast member in last fall's run. As someone noted, Richard Paul Fink, the #1 Alberich of the Schenck years, who sang last Wednesday's performance, may still be the current allodial owner of the role, from whom all others hold only in fee. (Sorry, I do write a law blog on the side.) But the same observer noted that Owens's approach is more cantante. Well, that's good. Listen closely to Neidlinger, the all-time king of Alberichs. His portrayal, vocal no less than thespianic (I never saw him on stage), is monumentally evil, but he sings every note: his Alberich is almost bel canto. Owens is closer to that tradition than RPF. (Btw I loved RPF's Alberich in the last go-round of the Schenck production, and I have the posts on this blog to prove it.)

* Terfel. He doesn't sound like he did twenty years ago. Well, who does? But, does he sound like he did in last fall's run of RHEINGOLD? Or have this role and the concurrent rehearsals for the more difficult WALKURE Wotan been taking a toll? The RHEINGOLD Wotan is still within the capacity of this amazing voice, and I still like the match-up of Terfel with Owens: bass-baritone-leaning-to-baritone versus bass-baritone-leaning-t0-bass, duelling over the Ring. I'll be interested to see the attacks and defenses on this point....

* Selig as Fasolt, Konig as Fafner. As last fall, a perfect matching of basses to giants. Both are deep basses, but Selig has a touch of gentleness, and Konig has a touch of -- idk, The Revenge of Fu Manchu or something.

* That was a great "Vielleicht -- JA, VIELleicht" by Siegel: just the way Wieland and Bohm told Erwin Wohlfhart to do it in '67 (rehearsal footage from Bayreuth back then has made it onto Youtube -- notice also how Neidlinger here is crazily into the staging but sings an octave down in this rehearsal-room take).

* Arnold Bezuyen has has a rapid and well-deserved rise to fame as Loge, both in Europe (incl. Bayreuth) and in L.A., where Achim Freyer's grinning Mephisto costume for this role fits Arnold's naturally wide mouth. He certainly brings a lot of flair and giggles to the role. Too many giggles, anyone think?

* Owen's "Hab't acht" monologue: totally Neidlinger/Fink class. And Terfel's "Vergeh, frevelndner Gauch!" response -- there's really nothing wrong with our Wotan today.

* Stage mechanism noise: right then -- Alberich turned into a dragon -- was the first time I heard any (listening on WQXR over my laptop). Haven't heard any until now. And if a dragon can't creak, what can?

* Haven't mentioned conductor Fabio Luisi yet (subbing for Levine, who is recovering from back surgery), but the Scenes 3-4 interlude is a good place to start. I like his pacing. His rubati in this interlude are traditional but well-executed. All the way back at the beginning I liked the way he avoided the RING-original-sin of not holding the E-flat pedal longing enough (my hero here is Solti; even Levine sometimes offends on this).

Luisi has e'er now shown himself to be one of those Italian maestros gifted in German rep. The next Sinopoli? (NB My favorite Toscanini recordings, by far, are his Wagner excerpts. He could draw perfect playing from any orchestra in any rep, but, imo, he was above all a Wagner specialist.)

* Owens understated his first "Der Ring?" -- the way people sometimes gasp or whisper their first repetition of unbearable news.

* Well, that note on "Soll an Freude dir frommen mein Fluch" won't go down as Owens's happiest moment. Time to regroup forces for the actual Curse....

*....which he's doing. Sounds effortless again.

* Ok, ok, no need to hold "Knecht" too long if you're scraping the bottom of the voice-barrel. Good support there, Maestro! (A good opera conductor not only keeps the orchestra together but perceives when a singer needs the fire brigade.)

* Eric, you've just finished another performance of one of the most difficult roles in your rep, and it was great until the last few seconds -- which, unforch, are highly exposed. Now go rest, then see your coach. See you on fb!

* The Giants are back: Selig (Fasolt) sentimental, and Koenig (Fafner) bloody mean!

* Stephanie Blythe's Fricka, to me, neither adds much nor detracts anything. Am I missing something? Some of her fans admit as much but blame it on the production. I don't buy that. She just doesn't move well in any production, and has a good-but-not-great voice. I saw her WALKURE Fricka in the previous production -- and she tripped over a piece of the (admittedly very uneven) set. However, she recovered in character -- imperiously waving of support efforts from James Morris, who also avoided breaking character.

* Patricia Bardon (Erda) has a fine contralto voice, but I'd have sworn she got the melody-line slightly wrong in her opening line.

* I can hear some stage machinery noises again. Erda descending? And who's that backstage shouting something?

* AWESOME how Luisi slows things down ominously just before the Giants' fight scene.

* W-wait. Did I just hear some audience laughter? At what -- the body of Fasolt sliding down the plank, Sweeney-Todd-style? Sorry, that's not a laughing moment, I don't care if you are a matinee audience with buses back to Philly waiting for you....

* Call to the Mists: Dwayne Croft is a fine Donner. And his brother Richard was a fine Loge last fall. Is there some law that the Croft brothers can't ever appear in the same performance? (E.g. in PELLEAS....?)

* "Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge": Terfel sounding the best he has all afternoon; his familiar self.

* Entrance of the God: Luisi's pacing -- neither slow nor fast but steady and stately -- excellent!

* Big hand for Owens; he acknowledges "orchestra," meaning probably Luisi, I'm guessing

* Big hand as well for Bezuyen and Terfel

* Now Luisi on stage

* I don't like the Met's gradual abandonment of traditional Met curtain calls in favor of Broadway bows, but that's a separate post. Admittedly, in RHEINGOLD, the only difference is whether the curtain is (Broadway style) or is not (traditional Met style) up during curtain calls.

* "Von Morgen bis Abend" -- so much happens in such a short time in DAS RHEINGOLD: the gold is stolen, the Ring is forged, Valhalla is completed, the Ring is stolen and cursed, Wotan dooms himself and the gods though his momentarily hanging onto it (Erda is flatly wrong if she thinks Wotan can save the gods by getting rid of it -- maybe she's just on a seduction mission: dark temptress 'n' all that); and the gods take possession of Valhalla thinking they're in the catbird's seat when they're actually in the crosshairs.

Playing time? Two and a half hours, give or take. Slightly longer than Act II of DIE WALKURE. Shorter than Prologue + Act I of GOTTERDAMMERUNG.

Yes, later installments of THE RING proceed more spaciously: that's because they focus, much more than does RHEINGOLD, on the human dramas between the characters ("human" even when they involve interactions between gods and men, or passages from divinity to "mere" humanity).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Listening to Met b'cast TRAVIATA. Thinking of suspending my ban on soprano crushes (mezzos free to apply) due to Poplavskaya; I was carried away by her Elisabetta last month. Right now we've just finished Act I of T., and I want to say You go girl, sounding' great, and don't let anyone pressure you into trying high options you don't feel comfortable with!