Thursday, January 22, 2009


I don't think I've ever seen Gluck's great opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I'll see it this Saturday when the Met presents it in HD in movie theaters. I'm looking forward to this production: First, to hear Stephanie Blythe, a rich-voiced contralto and a scrupulous musician in the title role. I'm eager to hear how James Levine, whom I've never heard in music pre- Mozart, shapes this score. Mark Marris's staging has won critical handstands. His interpretation of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" sprang entirely from the music. I suspect his staging of Orfeo will do the same.

Here are some notes I was asked to write for local audiences:

Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto by Raniero da Calzabigi
First performance: Burgtheater, Vienna, October 5, 1762

The myth of Orpheus, the great singer whose love for his wife sends him to Hades in search of her, to whom the gods promise Euridice's return on the condition he never look at her until safely back in the mortal world, was the subject of the first opera we know about, Jacopo Peri's "Euridice" (1599). Monteverdi's great "La favola d'Orfeo" is the oldest opera you are likely to encounter today, and Gluck's version of the same tale 150 years later is one of the oldest operas still performed.

The original, from 1762, was written for castrato. The opera was revised by Gluck several times, most notably in 1774 for Paris, where the local disdain for castrati led Gluck to re compose the title role for haute-contre, the high French tenor. Hector Berlioz revised Gluck's score for mezzo -soprano Pauline Viardot Garcia in 1859. There exist many performing editions of Orfeo ed Euridice, in French, Italian and German. What is never lost is Gluck's simple, deeply moving music and a story of love and loss that resonates today.

Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is called the reformer of opera. His famous
"Introduction to Alceste" (which may have been written by Calzabigi) puts forward the need to simplify operatic plots and to rely on melody to tell the story:

"I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situation of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless supply of ornaments...I believe that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity..."

The Metropolitan Opera's current production was planned for Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. Her untimely death in 2006 robbed us of what should have been a sensational performance. The staging is by dancer-choreographer Mark Morris, with costumes destined by Isaac Mizrahi. A perfect blend of old and new! In the title role we hear a young American force of nature, Stephanie Blythe. She recalls Louise Homer (1871-1947), the Pittsburgh born contralto whose twenty performances of Orfeo conducted by Toscanini at the Met between 1910 and 1914 put this great work firmly on the map in America. Mr. Morris and conductor James Levine use Calzabigi's original Italian language text, with Berlioz's adjustment of the vocal line for female contralto. The work is performed in one act without intermission.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Metropolitan Opera presents Puccini's LA RONDINE
live in HD in movie theaters worldwide, Saturday, January 10th.

(The Swallow)
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Adami
after Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert

Premiere: Monte Carlo, March 27, 1917

By 1910 Giacomo Puccini was on top of the musical world.
La boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly were international sensations.
The earlier Manon Lescaut has plenty of admirers. La fanciulla del West had just opened a the Metropolitan in New York, with Enrico Caruso and Emma Destinn. The audience was lukewarm but the newspapers were writing that Puccini had outdone himself.

What next? After love and death in Napoleon's Rome, or Nagasaki, or the California mountains, what could be left? Puccini had several projects in mind, including Marie Antoinette. Paris did win out as the setting of the composer's next opera, but not the tragic French-Austrian Queen. Instead, Puccini was going to write an operetta for Vienna. A German language libretto was was re shaped and translated into Italian, and La Rondine was born. World War I scuttled the Viennese premiere. La Rondine's first performance was in Monte Carlo, starring Gilda dalla Rizza and Tito Schipa. The audience and press were polite.

Soprano Angela Gheorghiu has called La Rondine, "Traviata without the heartbreak."
In the Parisian setting we meet Magda, the rondine-or swallow-of the title. The cynical poet Prunier tells Magda that just like a swallow she will fly away only to return home. Magda is a kept woman who meets a nice young man from the country. When he asks to marry her, she leaves him, realizing such a marriage would ruin his life.
No bloodshed, but a lot of pathos. At La Rondine's New York premiere in 1928, with Lucrezia Bori and Beniamino Gigli, critic W.J. Henderson wrote, "It is the afternoon off of a genius."

If the story is on the slim side, the opera does have Puccini's exquisite gift for melody. The first act 'Sogno di Doreta' is unforgettable. Magda follows this up with the wonderful 'Ore dolce e divine'. The second act waltz and ensemble are usually applauded o the rafters. Henderson conceded that "The Waltz in Act II will go the rounds. The phonograph will seize it. The radio will air it. The night clubs will do strange things with it." All that came to pass. But La Rondine lacked the blood and guts of Puccini's earlier operas, and the music was considered sentimental. The Metropolitan gave La Rondine only 17 times between 1928 and 1936. The first widely available recording, with the magnificent Anna Moffo, wasn't published until 1967.

Three recodings followed (buy the Moffo on RCA). La Rondine has been heard in Chicago, London, New York (conducted by Alessandro Siciliani at the New York City Opera) Vienna and Paris. Her recording of Doretta's aria made Leontyne Price a star. Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna have starred in Nicolas Joel's staging in London and San Francisco. These artists and this prodution return Puccini's score to the Metropolitan for the first time in over seventy years. Listen to the music. This afternoon off of a genius is a melodic score that would have defeated anyone else.


It was a few weeks ago but here are some notes I was asked to write for THAIS-
before the recent Met Opera HD presentation w. Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson.


Opera in three acts
Music by Jules Massenet
Libretto by Louis Gallet
Based on the novel by Anatole France

Premiere: Paris, Opera-comique, March 16, 1894

Take a hedonistic novel by Anatole France, add a composer with a bent for sensuality and an eye for feminine pulchritude, an exotic locale, a fascinating leading lady and voila:Jules Massenet's opera Thais ruled at the box office of the Opera-comique in Paris for years after its first performance in 1894.

Thais was a smash in Paris, especially when Sybil Sanderson sang the title role.
California born, the beautiful Sybil reportedly had a clear and attractive voice and looked well in Thais's costumes, both in the beginning of the opera as a courtesan and at the end, as a nun. She knew how to expire prettily in the arms of the baritone-monk Athanel, who chases Thais with the fervor of Jerry Falwell, seeking to "return this soul to God" in the fourth century, A.D.

Sybil Sanderson died young, reportedly from alcoholism and morphine addiction. She was succeeded as Thais by Scots-American soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967). Not for our Mary an early death. Her career embraced silent films and lasted on stage until the mid 1930s. Late in life she made the rounds as a lecturer, noting that "Massenet's love making was impossible." Mary even in old age knew how to get attention. No one denied her on stage potency, but her singing was controversial. "Miss Garden sang last night", wrote one critic. "Discussion of it is not agreeable." (Garden's few recordings, some over 100 years old, are lovely) Mary's American debut was as Thais-it was forgotten that it was the opera's American debut, too. The New York Times on December 14, 1907 noted the importance of the opera and Miss Garden's fame but added, "as a singer she improves upon acquaintance."

The source of the opera is a novel by Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature. Anatole France's text arguing the merits of paganism and sensuality v. Christianity and religious obsession changing into sexual obsession was powerful in its day. Massenet need a stage vehicle and wanted to capitalize on Sanderson's charms and box office clout.

Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) brought Thais to the Metropolitan in 1918. She was said to have disliked the role. Geraldine was a looker and a big star herself, but the public preferred Mary. "A faint and shadowy substitute" sniffed The New York World. It's true that Thais as an opera depends on a powerful leading lady. But a baritone with a warm, masculine voice is also a requirement. Over the years, Maurice Renaud, John Charles Thomas, Clarence Whitehill and Sherrill Milnes have led us to Thomas Hampson. Renee Fleming, our heroine today, is an artist of beauty and style, and unlike Mary Garden, her singing gets critical hosannas. And let's not forget Beverly Sills, the heroine of the Metropolitan's last Thais revival, thirty years ago. It was late in Sills's career, and her retirement was already announced. The staging was disliked. The diva herself had a savvy publicist float a rumor that Beverly as Thais would dance nude. This gave Sills the perfect opportunity to appear on every TV chat show and laugh:
"You'd have to call this opera THIGHS, honey."
Mary Garden was smiling in heaven.


Gilbert Kaplan conducted Mahler's Symphony number 2, the Resurrection with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall last December 8th. This was a one night only benefit for the Orchestra's pension fund. From all reports there was a full house and a large and apparently satisfied audience. The New York Times was respectful. Trombonist David Finlayson reports on his blog (see that the people on stage weren't as happy. Kaplan, a multi millionaire has been conducting this Mahler Symphony as an amateur for the last 25 years, with two recordings and over fifty performances to his credit. My dear friend Jane Struss sang with him in South America over twenty years ago. I remember her struggles to get the necessary visa from consular offices in New York, not to mention her comments at Kaplan's rehearsals. Like him or not, Kaplan has put this Mahler Symphony into the popular culture, where it may or may not belong.

Finlayson has made an emperor has no clothes argument, that Kaplan was a hopeless conductor and that the audience, Mahler and certainly the New York Philharmonic deserved better. A lot of people agree with him and a lot of people don't. Kaplan doesn't pretend to be a seasoned conductor-it is only this one piece he conducts, and his two recordings are available to be heard and and judged and enjoyed.

"His continued appearances are an affront to all "real" conductors who have toiled relentlessly for the recognition the truly deserve," writes Finalyson. He in turn is being attacked as a snob and an ingrate. He's carrying all the comments on his blog. Ominously he himself has posted nothing since December 18th. Over in London, Norman Lebrecht is huffing and puffing away in support of Kaplan (I never miss Norman's blog: I the only one in the world without his own website...and who is this Facebook person anyway?)

Years ago I went on air and decried the local symphony for importing Charlotte Church. She was the little girl who trilled Estrellita and Over the Rainbow in a toneless falsetto. Oprah called her the voice of an Angel. I guess Oprah had never heard Joan Sutherland. I said that such an appearance was disrespectful to the serious musicians on stage and to the loyal audience supporting them. I made myself no friends. People were irate. The symphony management told me off. Charlotte came, sang, sold out the house and made them money. Well and good. You know what? I don't take it back. I don't regret it.
Gilbert Kaplan has spent a lot of his own money making Mahler's music widely available. Good for him. Now let others conduct it. I wonder whatever happened to Charlotte Church?

Check them out for yourself:

And try to find Jane Struss. What an artist!