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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

AIDA in HD

I'm one of those people always yelling that yes, you need to have committed actors for opera and sure it helps I guess if they're good looking but bottom line I want to hear the great voices who understand what they are singing about. And I underline great voices. Like many of us, I grew up on recordings and added the visual element later in life. My opera going days during the 700s and 80s were mostly from standing room way WAAAAY upstairs so my perspective was very different from seeing youtube at my desk (and what a blessing youtube is!)

The Met's HD presentations in movie theaters are changing things. I suspect that many of the productions, staged in the past four or five years were designed to be seen from a closer perspective. Showing the twenty year old Aida gave us close ups of hollow columns that from a distance look spectacular. And then there were the singers.

Look, you need big magnificent voices for Aida. The tenor and the mezzo had 'em. The mezzo owns this music, all over the world. I haven't heard anyone touch her for power. But the camera was not kind to her. The close ups of this princess of Egypt did no one any favors. After all these years her voice is undiminished. It's a force of nature. I don't approve of my attitude in even noticing anything else about her. The tenor is a big BIG boy. A really big boy. I loved the fact that he was unafraid to use the sweetness in his splendid voice for Radames. He really sang the music, and he sounded like a lover. I suspect the experience live in the theater was more powerful than in the cinemas. Again, I'm worried that I even noticed, but up on the big screen, blown up the size of a building people's physicality can't be missed or discounted. I did love our mezzo throwing a few skinny bitch looks to Renee Fleming during an awkward intermission interview. Renee looked great but she can't sing Amneris. Our mezzo...my God!-certainly did!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Opera Columbus: This is what I would do

RANT ALERT!

What follows is only my opinion. We all know what opinions are like.

After an okay staged concert performance of Pagliacci with a grievous error in sight lines that pissed off the public and embarrassed the company. After producing one opera when they should have done two-no Cav-no nothing*-after staging the opera in such a way that many upstairs couldn't bloody see it...well...

Look, Opera Columbus does not need to be doing Pagliacci. They don't have the chops to compete in the big boy Italian repertoire that depends upon vivid-and rare-singing actors. A mediocre Pagliacci plays mediocre, (a mediocre Boheme can still break hearts) not exciting and does no one any favors. And Jesus God almighty, did NO ONE know that the show couldn't be seen from a number of the upstairs seats? How was this allowed to continue? The whole thing playedlike an attempt to further a few careers on the backs of a company. Cut it out. Right place right time and luck help us all but Tullio Serafin is not conducting in the Ohio Theater. There's no reason for this company to fold finally-finalmente-because of ill advised artistic choices and stupid mistakes.

Revive the Columbus Light Opera. Do a spring or summer festival. Month of May or June....perform every three day weekend.. Fri Sat night, Sunday matinee. Stick to G&S Offenbach, Romberg et al; cast locally with the terrific people who packed em in in the Light Opera days.(And stop saying "Opera Columbus Center" when you answer the phone. Center of what? for Pete's sake. Phony.)Do this for two seasons and build back your audience. If the Southern is unavailable use the Lincoln (Go ahead! I dare ya! It's beautiful) Use the Riffe Center and collaborate with Ohio State at the Thurber. THEN start adding a Boheme, A Barber of Seville, A Figaro, a Traviata with more adventurous-if you will-casting. Study the writings and films of Walter Felsenstein. Invite Nic Muni up to supervise. I'd work for him for nothing, just for what I could learn. So should you. Get serious. Give the audience a lot of what is proven and THEN surprise them with lovely, fully integrated operatic productions on a reasonable scale. And yes I think new work is crucial but I'm talking about restoring fiscal sense first.

Anyway, that's what I would do. Nobody asked me.

*I don't want to hear about it. LA and Washington can get away with Pag alone when Domingo sings. Otherwise, its cheap.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dont' throw away your old LPS

Not a month goes by that I don't get a call from someone cleaning out Grandma's attic. They don't know what to do with the stacks of records-they were 78s, but I'm getting nearer to Grandma's age so now there are more 33s-the LPs and records treasured in the house for years, often well played and well worn and well loved but of no use to anybody in this digital age. I never tell people they are no use to me either. I do refer them to a few dealers who can maybe help, but despite Antiques Roadshow, unless you have a pristine 78 of Edwin Booth or Christ himself, I doubt you'll see a penny for any of them. Sarah Bernhardt is on youtube for goodness sake!

I have stacks and shelves of LPs I can't bear to give up. Many are well worn. Most of them represent times in my younger life I don't want to forget, good and bad. These records were my introduction to music I have loved so much all these years. I first heard Don Giovanni, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Monteverdi's Sixth Book of Madrigals, and The Last Train to Clarksville on these now warped and beaten down shellacs. Throwing them away feels like a betrayal. Its like hanging on to your first time when your first time was ecstasy-an other first times seldom are. Messy and inconvenient ("why would people do that?") but seldom ecstatic.

My first Don Giovanni, on five RCA LPs from the library was ecstasy. Just the sound of the overture, those crushing, dark chords changed my life and I was 8!
A few days ago at the OSU Music Library record sale I came across that LP set for $5 and I didn't buy it. I realised I could never play it, and I had the performance now on Cd. I wish I had bought it! Just to have for $5! My bad.

Recently a friend took a stack of my LPS-titles that have never made it on to CD,irreplaceable-and put them on CD for me. It wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap but he did it. Now I can listen again to:

Purcell: Did and Aeneas, Boston Camerata, to hear the divine D'Anna Fortunato in this music again!

Cesare Valletti in recital, the wonderful Italian tenore di grazia in Pizzetti, Schumann, Schubert, Handel-a rare performance of lieder but an Italian artist.

Massenet: Werther with Valletti and the beautiful Rosalind Elias from Lowell, Mass.

The Boston Camerata in Josquin's Missa pange lingua and in Flemish music from Renaissance Italy

The Last Train to Clarksville has long been on CD. The Monkees don't need any help. Adrian Willaert and Purcell and Massenet, apparently do.

I'm so glad to have these performances back. No, they aren't as great to me now as they were nearly forty years ago. But they are very beautiful and its like recovering a lost piece of myself to hear them again.

Renata Tebaldi's Last Tosca


It was hardly the end of her career; she sang opera until 1973 and retired from concerts three years later. On January 10, 1970 Renata Tebaldi sang her last Tosca. She had given over eighty performances of the role in twenty years and I doubt she expected this last leap into the Tiber was to be her last. It just happened that way. Tebaldi continued to sing in Otello, La fanciulla del West, La boheme, Andrea Chenier and Falstaff. I bring this up because in digging through the avalanche of Met broadcasts I came across this Tosca performance, and was able to really listen to it for the first time.

I must have heard it live on my transistor radio (If you're reading this blog and you're under forty, God bless you, you don't know from transistor radios. Think I-pod with a battery). Tebaldi was forty-seven and her voice was in decline. She was still a gorgeous woman-I saw her in 1973-and there's a lot of the old velvet left to the middle of her voice. Unlike Callas, her press fueled nemesis, Tebaldi's voice didn't separate. There were no glaring holes, but it became more difficult to sing in tune. The sound remained huge, and often very beautiful. You can hear the effort it was taking her to make this sound-she really worked to get the voice to flow. But the unmistakable timbre remained. Hers remained a very great personality-a vocal personality clearly identifiable. And what commitment! She had to know the top notes weren't going to be pretty, but she shirked nothing, and every sound she made served the drama. I was drained after listening to this Tosca. Thank God for transistor radios. I wish I could have been there (I was thirteen). Her colleagues were the Hungarian tenor Sandor Konya, having a nasal day. I think he was pushing his beautiful, lyrical voice into the Italian parts without the Italian cojones-and the great American baritone Cornell MacNeil. He was another one who always used text to propel the stage action. His voice lacked the sensuousness and beauty of Robert Merrill's. Merrill on record sounds too good to be a convincing Scarpia. MacNeil is terrifying. I saw him in the role later in his career and from all the way up in standing room you FELT him.

I have cases of Met broadcasts, going back to 1934. They are my baseball cards. I especially like to revisit the performances, like this Tosca-from my earliest listening days, which began in 1968. Back then, whether you liked the voices or not they meant what they were singing.Most of the great names of the 1950s, like Tebaldi, were fading when I got to hear them-but they bring joy and pain both forty years later.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Met's Tosca...so what did you think?



Whole lotta brouhaha and gnashing of teeth over the Metropolitan Opera's new staging of Puccini's "Tosca", which made its way internationally last Saturday via the Met's first HD transmission of the season. "Forty one countries, one thousand theaters" trumpeted the Met's Peter Gelb, a media maven who has been capo di tutti capi at Broadway and 63rd St. for the past three? four? seasons. Gelb promises a new way to look at and experience opera and boy-o he wasn't kidding. The HD presentations are terrific. I've seen most of them. I may not have liked everything I saw and heard but its fun to be onstage with the caked make- up and heaving bosoms. The HD experience, like opera titles a generation ago, is here to stay. More people are hearing more opera.

You could argue whether or not more people are hearing better opera. I suspect Gelb knew what he was doing is producing a de- constructionist Tosca that did without the candelabras and crucifixes attributed to Sarah Bernhardt and Victorien Sardou (in that order). And if you are going to replace Franco Zeffirelli's gargantuan, realistic Roman sets (I loved them. I loved that staging) in the midst of a horrible recession you are going to use a lot of bare brick walls and turrets and some faux-contemporary furniture in primary colors.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri led a big boy interpretation-loud, and swept up and with an occasional Brucknerian fatness that I loved. Colaneri is one of those very gifted maestri you can count on both to do it up right and to add a few touches-the Act I love duets were slower than I'm used to, but also sounded sexier. It was hot. Colaneri can do slow in this opera without dropping the dramatic thread. That's an accomplishment.

The Met cast three charismatic singers, requirement one for Tosca. Look, go ahead and laugh but I've always maintained that the soprano singing Tosca can be an adequate singer is she is a sensational actress. Karita Mattila, lacking the Mediterranean warmth and fatness mid voice (no body fat on her by he way...she's stunning) nevertheless spared herself nothing vocally. It's a bright, forward sound with just the bit of cut you need to ride the thick -blaring!-orchestra. She came off stage after Act 2 to be interviewed by the luscious Susan Graham and I was impressed at seeing how much the performance had taken out of her, while she was clearly eager and pumped to continue. And what's with no applause at Tosca's entrance? Are you kidding me? Forget the purists. Do we no longer buzz in anticipation of Tosca's entrance?

I've always loved Marcelo Alvarez's singing. The phrasing of recondita armonia was choppy. I was waiting for the silken line of a Bjoerling or Pavarotti but Marcelito wanted to pump out the sound and he certainly did. Cavaradossi, unlike Tosca can be as charismatic as hell but he better be able to sing, sing, sing and Alvarez delivered. And I liked Georgi Gagnidze, the Scarpia in spite of a few Snidley Whiplash grimaces up on the big screen. The costumes were attractive but suggested nothing as to period, and Alvarez has quite a fanny on him that even the dark clothes couldn't hide. The Met has no girdles?

Yes, people have been whining about the Act 2 blow job with Scarpia in flagrante-his vicious isolation is a part of the story, this man wouldn't resort to tarts-and about Tosca taking to the couch to fan herself slowly after murdering Scarpia-with a knife- thrust to the cojones, yet. The great tension and anguish of the scene fell off a cliff. And the final jump took too long-Puccini's music indicates the horror of the opera's last ninety seconds-the staging had us waiting around for a 2 second look at an affect. Still, Luc Bondy clearly didn't rely on sets or costumes to tell the story, and he kept our attention on the principals. That's quite an accomplishment. Even the current Met dares not put lasers into 19th century Rome--there were strobe lights.

It's a new day. Gelb is hiring Luc Bondy to crate buzz and if its negative buzz that's fine, maybe better. The boos on Tosca's opening night (stupid) made the evening news. Even Brian Williams talked about it !