Monday, March 25, 2013

Reading Old Opera News

I thought of several alternatives to 'old' in the above title, but somehow back issue or out of print didn't cut it.

I got a phone call a few months ago. The gentleman said, my father loved your station and loved you.He's left you boxes of Opera News magazine, and crates of tapes. Grateful and intrigued, I arranged for a drop off of said loot and shook hands with the nice gentleman and his gorgeous two year old daughter.

Then I heaved my 50 plus plus plus sized-self boxes and all and found a corner for them in the studio. No thought of taking them home. Most of my CD collection is in exile for lack of space. I'm going to make room for dated magazines when there's no room for Rosa Ponselle's 1936 Carmen broadcast? I think not

Max Rudolf
I've been reading Opera News, the publication of he Metropolitan Opera Guild since I was twelve. Yes, I was a weird kid, but there you are.  That was the late sixties. Back then Tebaldi, Tucker, Corelli, Merrill, Sutherland, Price, Bergonzi, Sills, Peters and Moffo were all in full cry. The Pav and Domingo were just hitting the big time.Most of them toured and eventually I saw them all at Boston's cavernous John B. Hynes Civic Auditorium (the War Memorial in my day) Diana Damrau, Ann Netrebko, Juan Diego Florez, Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay were either yet to be born or not long out of diapers. Conductors featured back then were Thomas Schippers, Karl Bohm, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, Zubin Mehta, Fausto Cleva and the barely out of teens James Levine. Elanor Steber popped up occasionally and Callas was planning a comeback.
Robert Jacobson

My late friend left crates of Opera News going back to 1983. That's the first year I participated in Texaco Opera Quiz. I was a guest-and occasional host-on and off for twenty years. The current management was not for me and clearly the feeling is mutual but I was the kid in the Golden Age (hello, Father Lee!) and my name is listed in many of these magazines, to my joy. How great to relive some exciting times.

Christopher Keene
There's an interview with conductor Max Rudolf, (December 7, 1991) the reading of which is like a mini master class in conducting Mozart. Eleanor Steber is full of herself and loving it in a 1990 interview, possibly her last? She goes on about her joie de vivre and admires Maria Ewing. That lady is at the center of the March 1986 Carmen issue-her portrayal of the gypsy previewed with excitement and later acknowledged as a disasters. The wonderful Phillis Curtin is gorgeous on the cover in 1992. At one point she lets fly with commentary on being bumped from the New York City Opera 'Giulio Cesare' in favor of Beverly Sills: "That's when the knife went in my back."

Leonie Rysanek as Kostenicka in Jenufa
Leonie Rysanek tells us that her Kostelnicka will be terrific complete with high Cs (March 15, 1986) Magda Olivero,  in her eighties and quite young (today is her 103rd birthday) had just recorded scenes from Adriana Lecouvreur. Pavarotti celebrated  his 50th birthday (March 29, 1986) and talks of restudying Idomeneo. A girl called Dolora Zajick was beginning to win prizes (1985) and Renee Fleming was one of "ten singers to watch" (1989)

AIDS slowly began to decimate the arts around 1984. Obituaries of young artists appear. Robert Jacobson, editor of Opera News, died in 1987. The baritone Wayne Turnage was the center of a "Living with AIDS' feature in 1990. His gaunt photograph brought back that terrible time. He talked of a rapid decline in health and isolation relieved by the first of many support groups. He died before the article saw print. It's terrible that I can find not one photo of Wayne Turnage on line.John Reardon died. Bill  Harwood, a promising young conductor was the first I heard of to die of pneumonia. I said to a friend "It's 1982. Who dies of pneumonia in 1982?" Christopher Keene at the New York City Opera always looks dashing in these Opera News photos, belying the AIDS and alcoholism that would take his life.

Rockwell Blake was a young tenor. Chris Merritt was singing Rossini;s Otello everywhere. Marilyn Horne did her first Mistress Quickly and retired her Rossini repertoire. Dame Joan added Anna Bolena and Ophelia in Hamlet. Barrymore Laurence Scherer, Daniel Patrick Stearns, Dale Harris (a loss to ADIS) Father Owen Lee and Philip L Miller were among the contributors. The issue of July 1988 has Dolora Zajick and Richard Leech on the cover, kids then, and the Letters column argues the pros and cons of super titles.

It's nostalgia and a lot of it is poignant and sad. On the other hand, this past weekend at the Columbus Symphony./Ballet Met collaboration the packed house was filled with  20-somethings on a date night. There's hope yet for new audiences and publications serving them.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Francesca da Rimini

Riccardo Zandonai
Gabriele D'Annunzio
I was mildly shocked this morning to realize its been thirty years since I stood through four performances of the Met's then new production of Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini. Back then it had been seventy years since the opera was produced in New York, On today's live HD presentation from the Met, commentators and artists alike spoke with admiration of the video from that 1983 production. I guess they are all too young to have seen it 'live.' The thought gave me a bit of a chill.

Today's performance did not. I loved it and accept its flaws. Was it Sondra Radvanovsky who said "There's nobody like Zandonai." I agree. Many Italian composers of the early twentieth century were fitting notes to words and coming up with dramatic,  strong scores-not concert hall stuff but good ol' blood and guts. One of the tenets of verismo is a depiction of every day life.

If that's the criteria Zandonai would have passed on D'Annunzio's text based on Dante. Gabriele D'Annunzio used language where today we see the sex act in all its variety, D'Annunzio's words are fragrant and suggestive, never vulgar. Paolo refers to his passion for Francesca 'come labbra d'una fresca ferita-like the lips of a fresh wound, likening to a rose . I never heard the name D'Annunzio mentioned today.

Eleanora Duse as Francesca
Music to a text like this needs to swirl and caress and bathe. So Zandonai does. He uses church modes to suggest a medieval austerity. He uses old instruments. Everything is suggested until-forgive-the climax of passion ending Act III. As erotic and dangerous as the story is, still we are allowed and encouraged to use our imaginations. Noting is thrown into our ears or faces.

One of the reasons I believe for Francesca's neglect is the requirement of the two leads to be very charismatic. We didn't have that today. Eva- Maria Westbroek did well. I enjoyed her guts and sincerity. She lacks the warm, pulsating voice that best fits this music.  She used her voice fearlessly and excitingly.   I found her performance measured, as if she were a soprano singing Francesca rather than being Francesca.

Marcello Giordani was made up to look like Charlie Sheen's grandfather Again, I think this music needs liquidity and flow to the voice Giordani can no longer summon. Mark Delavan had more voice than Cornell MacNeil did thirty years ago, but he wasn't as terrifying as his predecessor. Delavan was fun in interviews. I think he's better off in roles that show the line and beauty of his voice (line and beauty in this opera are in the orchestra) I'd love to hear his Germont again, or Posa, or Wolfram.

The hit of the afternoon for me was the gold curtain. Go ahead, laugh. Walking into the Met and seeing that great curtain tells you that you are in for something intended to be special. Unique. It's part of the passion in opera, Same with the curtain-bows. It becomes an Event, at least to me.
And what a joy to see beautiful 3-D sets...and not a present day costume or reference to be seen. D'Annunzio says medieval Italy and by God....

Marco Armilitato understood that the orchestra had to approach this score, lyrically,  as song, the battle scenes excepted. What we had today was a show with curtain that looked like 1980s at the Met. I'm grateful for recent productions of House of the Dead, The Nose, Maria Stuarda, and I loved the Vegas Rigoletto-but today the entire experience spelled o-p-e-r-a.

P.S. Riccardo Zandonai has a very worthy biographer in Konrad Dryden.Go find it. Well worth reading.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dear Pope Francis


By now hopefully you've had a night's sleep and have dealt with the Eva Peron jokes. You will remember that she too positioned herself as an advocate of the poor.

Last night on CNN I saw a man of humility on the Vatican balcony. You should be proud of that. It's difficult to appear humble amidst trappings that would have shamed the Borgias (a nasty pope among them). The digital age did not invent religion as theater. The Greek tragedies thousands of years before Christ combined worship with spectacle. What are the pyramids but pretty graveyards built to appease the gods? Yes, spectacle is import as symbols of power. Power you now have.

What will you do with such power? We read that you eschew the Cardinal's mansion in Buenos Aires for a simple apartment. You ride public transport. I'll bet you do take the opportunity to chat up with as many fellow straphangers as you can-be they Catholic or not. I believe too,  that in your heart you are a decent person rooted and sincere in your beliefs.

That said, you know what has to happen to the church in which I was raised, the liturgy of which I still love.

Let's start with women. The question of ordination of women is always greeted with a lecture on the esteem with which the church holds women. Martha, Mary Magdalene and above all the Virgin Mary. Insisting on the perpetual virginity of the mother of Jesus doesn't say much for women, in my opinion. But let's recognize such praise for what it is 2,000 years later. Weak. Admiring mythical women of thousands of years ago at the expense of human rights today is absurd. But that's the line. Cardinal Dolan was trumpeting away on the early a.m. news cycles today. How can you say the church debases woman, the Mother of God...yadda yadda yadda. It's lip service and you know it.

Women are the healers and the nurturers. So are men today-we've come a long way, baby. They belong in front of the congregation, dispensing the sacraments and preaching the gospel. Not ordaining women reinforces the white old man power structure that has brought the church to a new low. No, this won't be solved by acknowledging more men of color (that's not a bad thing) So many people have worked hard for years to insure an equal opportunity world, at least gender based. Get with it. You are dying for lack of clergy. A woman with a good mind and a full heart needn't emulate the Virgin Mary-rather she can insure the future of a dynamic and compassionate church.

But I'm not sure that's what the Curia wants. You'll find that out.

About the sexual scandals. How much more evidence do you need to see that the present recruitment of an all male celibate (HA!) clergy is wrong. The church's hatred of gay people (spare me "hate the sin love the sinner-" a sexual relationship between two consenting adults is not sinful, and even you aren't yet Jerry Falwell please God) is ironic. In my day the seminaries were seen as havens for men who were "a little funny." Better they embrace celibacy and give their lives to God. If you made a pitch to older, married men you'd have the seminaries overflowing. You and I both know why this isn't happening. A man in his forties is not going to buy the line. He's going to ask questions and posit new ideas. See previous note about the Curia.

I live two miles from the lovely campus of the Pontifical College Josephinum.   I needn't tell you this is the only seminary outside of Rome answering directly to the Vatican. To you. I used to go up there to walk the grounds, and occasionally visit St. Tiberius Chapel. Walk around up there and you are greeted by young seminarians out to enjoy the sunshine. What alarms me is how young they are, if not in years than emotionally. What do you expect when you admit 14 year olds to study and impress on them lives of chastity, poverty and obedience? Yes, there may be some especially blessed. You know they are in the right place. I've met a few. But c'mon. Most become sexually fearful and emotionally stunted. They stop maturing in any way at 14. Or 24. The young men I've chatted with were polite, kindly, respectable and in some ways immature. You can be very moved by their sincerity-I was and am-and alarmed by their lack of worldview. These boys need to get drunk, get beaten up a few times and these boys need to get laid.

Show me a priest guilty of child abuse and I'll show you a kid subjected to a life way, way beyond his years. I cry for these young men, because it will be hard to trust them. The church has tolerated too much horror and too much harm has been done. What new clergy there is will live amidst distrust. Their loneliness will be acute. Eager young people with a lot to offer will become cynical power graspers.The cycle towards abuse is guaranteed to continue.

Admit women to full participation. Get rid of celibacy. Encourage older vocations and go after married men. Encourage questions and constructive criticism. Read the gospels thoroughly and interpret them for the 21st century. Keep the beauty and holiness of the sacraments. The church just may have a chance.

Many people are counting on you.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Thoughts on Parsifal

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Parsifal, seen in HD live last Saturday may be the best performance of anything I've ever experienced anywhere.

The work itself has always moved me. I stood through it several times in New York during my younger days. This weekend it made its full affect when seen up close, with titles.
The cast was superb: Jonas Kaufman, Rene Pape, Peter Mattei, Katarina Delayman, Evgeny Nikitin conducted by Daniele Gatti. The production is by Francois Girard. Men in white shirts and dark trousers. Women in black (mimes) Flowermainden in white sheaths.

Here's what struck me seeing this performance "up close". Rene Pape has the mot beautiful voice I've encountered in a long time. Peter Mattei  exhausted the audience with Amfortas's agony but his voice was in no way infirm. Jonas Kaufman turned his move star looks into a touching naivete and nothing about the role troubled him vocally. Daniele Gatti conducted with the expansiveness of a great musician who has this score down-with just the right touch of Italian passion. I have a specially admiration for Italians conducting Wagner. De Sabata's Tristan is especially powerful-yearning times 100.

Of the opera itself, I know the basis in medieval legend. I know the guardianship of the Holy Grail.
When this performance ended I turned to my friend next to me and said "Remember, the Holocaust was going on just over fifty years after this premiered."

How is it possible? I know that Parsifal was banned during the Third Reich. Perhaps Hitler and the composer's wretched family in Bayreuth couldn't countenance "The Perfect Fool" among German manhood.
Was it the music or the megalomania of Wagner's art that Hitler admired.

Parsifal as music is to me the end. Nothing surpasses its beauty and emotional pull. 

 I don't know if Wagner had any sincerity in his Christianity. I've read he wasn't a churchgoer. This opera is not steeped in religion but in Christianity. A Christianity steeped in wounds and blood. Wagner's Christianity? Was the sacred a vehicle for Wagner to write the music he wanted (I never get the sense that Wagner HAD to needed to write music.) I think Wagner thought himself BIGGER than Christianity-that the Deity should be serving Wagner's art.

The sanctity expressed in Parsifal unnerves some people. It doesn't bother me because I don't think much about it. I get the allegories: Speer, blood, grail, madness, sex.

Was Wagner laughing at humanity for being suckered? I think it was Wagner's cynicism that attracted Hitler and much as the grandeur of Wagner's music.

Pieta: Peter Mattei as Amfortas
What impresses me most is the idea of male connections. not homosexuality, not sex but connection. Gurnemanz as the stern but loving father. He's especially touching in his old age. His recognition of
Parsifal in Act III was another performance highlight. Parsifal doesn't know empathy-Kundry's Kiss brings him into humanity-not to sex with her but to the suffering Amfortas.

Amfortas, the king of the grail knights, in his pain and misery is still the king. His vulnerability is what is most shocking to the others, more so than his actual pain. I do appreciate the male-male love depicted in these roles being elevated far above a sexual plane.

I still find a lot of Wagner, well...long. And Parsifal is the longest. I could have sat through it again on Saturday.. I left the theater not wanting to hear any more music and three days later I still don't.