Thursday, August 30, 2012

Memories of Opera on the Radio Pt. 4

I see I've been cheating in previous posts. I meant to include those broadcasts I actually heard "live": in car, living room, back yard, school, on transistor or portable or car radios, with batteries or extension cords. OK in this post I include only those that had me crouched by the speakers or transistor to my ear while everyone was singing and carrying on.

Pagliacci February 13, 1971: Richard Tucker, Teresa Stratas, Sherrill Milnes, Dominic Cossa/Fausto Cleva

Richard Tucker, THE Canio
The Met was recovering from a strike at the time of this broadcast. A year earlier, Franco Zeffirelli's production of Cav and Pag along with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne (and Carlo Bergonzi!) in Norma that were produced on schedule. Richard Tucker had a colossal success as Canio. I remember that Zeffirelli told the press that Tucker was a great VOICE but not much of an actor-but in these rehearsals Tucker had pushed himself dramatically. There was still a great seal of buzz for Richard Tucker as Canio long before this February broadcast. Sherill Milnes was nearing the top of his career as America's macho-man baritone with everything: great voice, looks, musicianship. Teresa Stratas's  Nedda had likewise rocked the business   for the sexuality. Stratas gave a hot performance of his role-she inhabited Nedda, rather than playing Nedda. The press made comparisons to Sophia Loren.

This I heard on my trusty 8V transistor. The audio would have horrified most even in 1971 but I, at thirteen thought it was just great. I can still hear Tucker's voice swelling in Act I: A venti-tre ORE! Sherrill Milnes took the optional high ending of the prologue like a piece of cake. It as a few more years before I could completely appreciate Dominic Cossa. I stood for Les pecheurs de perles , which Cossa sang so beautifully at City Opera in 1980. Later Dominic Cossa gave Beverly Sills's farewell one of its few moments of pure class: He sang Schubert's Du bist die Ruh' while Cynthia Gregory danced. But in this Pagliacci, with no disrespect to anyone else, it was Tucker, Tucker, Tucker. I listen to this performance 40 years later and get chills.

Tristan und Isolde December 18, 1971 Birgit Nilsson, Jess Thomas, Irene Dalis, William Dooley, Giorgio Tozzi/Erich Leinsdorf

Jess Thomas
I wasn't much on the Wagner bus in 1971. Kids don't have much of an attention span-adults have less today then kids did forty years ago-and let's face it. Wagner operas are long. This was the Saturday before Christmas and I'm sure I was being ordered about to help clean, cook, wrap, shovel, sled or generally stay the hell out of the way. .OK. Halfway through the prelude of this performance I "got it". At last some of it. I could the beauty of of the first riding theme and its near resolution.  I remember sitting on the edge of my chair when that hit. Of Nilsson I remember thinking she was like a fast train, nothing could stop her. Her sound was endless-.

And I can still hear Jess Thomas, sounding intense with five notes: 'Was ist's? Isolde!'. I've always had a soft spot for Irene Dalis. At the time of this broadcast she had sung Isolde-not Brangaene-in San Francisco. It wasn't a success.  Her chest voice at 'vertraue nun Brangaene!' was devastating. Leinsdorf was music director of the Boston Symphony. He was a regular presence on Channel 2 as many of the BSO concerts were televised. Them were the days. I didn't know enough to pay attention to the conducting per se in 1971. I do remember a funny and unkind comment from a mentor of mine when Leinsdorf died, "And the angels sing!" 

The Dialogues of the Carmelites  January 5, 1977 Maria Ewing, Shriley Verrett, Regine Crespin, Betsy Norden, Raymond Gibbs, William Dooley/Michel Plasson 

Nobody knew what this was. Yes, the opera had been performed in New York (City Opera, God bless them) and it was often heard on campuses: whole lotta roles for women. Today with Sirius broadcasts of From the House of the Dead and Satyagraha, you may surprised to know that opera broadcasts  in the 70s and before were not adventurous. La Perichole was about it. No disrespect, but c'mon. The first time I remember the mold being broken was for L'Italiana in Algeri but that had Ponelle and Marilyn Horne.
Carmelites  at the Met had John Dexter and Regine Crespin. She was Poulenc's choice for Mme. Lidoine in Paris and Dexter was the razor sharp director of productions. That may not count for radio but the triumph of Carmelites was HIS as much as Poulenc's or anyone else's. So hearing an opera written in the 20th century on the broadcasts was a rarity. Dexter wrote that he insisted the first performance of this work be a Saturday broadcast, believing it would create buzz. It did! This performance was heavily this Saturday evening there wasn't a ticket to be had for repeats.

It was sung in English and except for Verrett-who was very grand for Mme Lidoine, a contradiction, you could take dictation of the singer's Eng;ish. Maria Ewing had a sadness to her voice, what Italians call morbidezza. Betsy Norden won all hearts as Sister Constance -she knew when to be adorable in this role and when NOT to be. Crespin gave the production authority and class.  She was the First Prioress,  Mme de Croissy ad the only non native English speaker in the cast. Crespin, even with Verrett on stage-was very much the star of this production. At first hearing Crespin's voice is woofy and hard to control. But like a great artist, she makes you listen. She doesn't have the easiest voice at this point, but it remains huge. Crespin can still caress a phrase: "Yes your heart is gentle and kind" she says to Blanche and melts us all.

The finale as the nuns marched to the guillotine got the silence. It sounds like the New York audience was shocked or moved. I suspect both.

Maria Ewing, better late...
Here's a postscript. This production was done on the Met tour and came to Boston in April of 1979. My buddies and I ushered. We arrived in good time for the 8 pm curtain. There were fliers all over the auditorium. The performance would be delayed until 9.30 at least.  (People didn't say 'chill out' in 1979) So the audience had nothing to do but mill around. The bar did  good business I'm sure. The singers came out in their street clothes to hang with the audience. What else were they going to do? Crespin, Dunn, Norden, Clarice Carson, Raymond Gibbs (nice guy, fine tenor-a wonderful Pelleas-look him up) all were hanging out chatting up the audience. Crespin sipped a bit of wine. We noticed Maria Ewing wasn't chillin'. It turns out she was the reason for the wait. She had decided to drive from New York and her car broke down! Some of the choristers told us that management was prepared to come down hard on our Maria, but that Crespin wouldn't permit it-and people made way for this great French diva. as they should have. Oh yeah, around 10 PM the show went on and it was sensational.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth said to have been used to wrap the body of Jesus just after the crucifixion. The unwound shroud left an imprint of a man's face and body, thought by many to be the face of Christ. The Shroud is stored today in the Cathedral at Turin, the in Chapel of the Holy Shroud, built in the 17th century. The Shroud is rarely shown in public. Most recently it was viewed in 2010 by pilgrims, among them Pope Benedict XVI, who called the Shroud "An Icon of Holy Saturday".

The Shroud is at the center of anew book by Thomas De Wesslow, a British art historian called The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret Resurrection.  de Wesselow is a self described agnostic and this is not a book espousing religious dogma. In fact, the meticulous deconstruction of Shroud 'scholaship' over 2000 years makes unquestioning faith in church teaching seem quaint, if not ridiculous. Those of us raised in the Church fifty years ago were told these are the facts, no questions, period. de Wesselow is not a theologian but  historian and armchair scientist. Whatever his background, he has written a thrilling book, meticulously researched, a page turner.

de Wesselow re tells the story of Easter Day as follows: the tomb of Jesus was visited by Mary Magdalene and Martha. They were to anoint the body, in keeping with Jewish burial ritual. They found instead the Shroud. This visage on linen was shown to the disciples and the apostles (the Twelve) and it is from this cloth, rather than reincarnated flesh and blood,  that the resurrection of Christ from the dead was claimed. So in fact though the ages, the resurrection has been celebrated with out a corporeal presence. That's where dogma comes in. We were to have believed and not questioned two tenets of Catholicism. That Christ is present in his actual flesh and blood in the celebration of the mass. And that he did indeed rise from the dead as a living, sentient human three days after the Crucifixion.

I was a tad saddened in reading this either to have wholeheartedly believed since childhood or feeling suckered and foolish. Is this book an attack on faith? No. It is a convincing human argument based on science, attempting to explain (what the church claims never needs to be explained)  events of 2000 years ago.

De Wesselow points out that the gospels describing Christ's death and Resurrection were written many years after the facts and not by eyewitnesses. Paul, author of the Epistles, never knew Christ, never saw him. He was shown the shroud and again it is form this image that he began to spread the gospels, Resurrection and all.

To me a book is worthwhile if it makes me think and convinces me to at least try to see life in a different way. Thus The Sign is enorrmously worthwhile. If  De Wesselow doesn't write about faith, he does approach history with respect and care,and he tells a tremendous, and to me glorious mystery. The Sign will be one of my favorite books of 2012.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Daddy, Marilyn and Anna Nicole

One way to pack the opera houses, especially in this video age is to be as prurient as possible. The more things change, right? Years ago Beverly Sills shocked people when she said, "La traviata is an opera about a whore. You can dress her up and the music is magnificent, but she's a whore just the same." And indeed, Verdi's audiences in 1853 were shocked to see a woman living with several men, one for money and another for love, even if she did die in the end.

Wagner's twins have sex and conceive a child. Verdi has murders, rapes and riots. Mozart and da Ponte wrote of the droit de seigneur, where the master gets the bride before the groom. Opera has never been about stuffy people-the stigma of the plaything of the rich-stuffy with money-mystifies.

You'll be hearing more about composer Thomas Ades. His opera The Tempest is coming to the Met in a few months, and you'll see it in HD. It is a magnificent opera! Don't miss it!

Margaret Duchess of Argyll, a lady of many talents
And when an opera has the line: Is daddy squiffy? you'd best pay attention.

Powder Her Face is an earlier work by Mr. Ades. It concerts a ravishing red head of the 1950 and 60s called Margaret Sweeney. Cole Porter celebrated "Mrs. Sweeney" in song. Margaret was gorgeous, she liked a good time, and she got around. In 1951 she marred Ian Campbell the duke of Argyll. When, a number of years later it became clear that Margaret's active social life had not diminished with marriage, the Duke sued for divorce. A scandal it was. Polaroids of Her Grace, naked but for a strand of pearls,  on her knees pleasuring a member of parliament did not amuse hubby but had the Empire roaring. That was the least of it. Testimony revealed that Meg's conquests neared 100 during her marriage. The judge called her a whore from the bench, the divorce was granted and Margaret was free and broke.

Powder Her Face takes us to the Duchess-as she continued to style herself-about to be evicted from her suite at the Savoy.  Flashbacks add to the story. Few need further imagination:

(What's left of)  The New York City Opera produces Powder Her Face later this year. A good time for all may be guaranteed.

Famous for the right reasons
Then there's Marilyn. On this,  the fiftieth anniversary of her death-and she'd be 86!! if alive today-we have Robin de Raaf's Waiting for Miss Monroe, produced recently be the Netherlands Opera. American soprano Laura Aikin took the title role:


This opera will not provide the nasty laughs accorded to the former Mrs. Sweeney. Marilyn Monroe I always drought was waaaaay over -exposed after her death. Then I viewed a few of her films and realized why. The camera loved her and she it, having nothing to do with any sexual act or (sometimes) suggestions thereof. Some got it and some ain't and Norma Jean had it and how. I do wish she could rest in peace, but here she is in the opera house. Can another mini-series be far off?

But wait! Back to nasty and just plain vulgar.  Anna Nicole Smith, the former Vicky Lynn Hogan, has her own opera, called of course Anna-Nicole. The composer is Mark-Anthony Turnage. Not surprisingly the opera had a sold out run in London. It had the imprimatur of Antonio Pappano has starred the superb Eva-Maia Westbroek. Eva' is much more attractive than the huge boobed caricature she plays on stage. Anna/Vicky's marriage to J Howard Marshall left her rich and in court, and there's little doubt that this    daddy died happy-very happy-.

So the next time some worthy tells you opera is dull and for the rich you can say opera is sometimes about the rich, but hell look at those boobs on Anna Nicole. Look at Mrs. Sweeney 's myriad talents and the pathos of Marilyn. Who's bored?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mozart's Advice

Here's a note to young singers:
Mozart wants you to loosen up and kiss it!

Before you next perform an art song, especially a German lied, please familiarize yourself with this brief work of Mozart's:

And when you stand there seriously, when you look frowning out into the audience in your stiff formal gown or your too tight white tie and tails, and begin to sing in German, a language you don't speak fluently  but know is too serious, and you know your audience doesn't understand German, and expects to be devotional and bored but never entertained, remember that Mozart, the greatest musician God ever produced, wrote a choral work at the height of his fame, he whose music had moved bishops and emperors, Mozart wrote a canon asking you to lick  his  ass!

That should free you to perform from places of love, joy and irony.

Let us be glad!
Grumbling, groaning are in vain
It's the true bane of life
Growling and complaining

Kiss my ass!
Goethe! Goethe!
Gotz von Berlichlingen! Second act!
Let's out know together
And let your ass be licked!