Bernstein’s Candide

Took in Washington National Opera’s Candide, their season closer, and part of the celebration of the centenary of the maestro’s birth.

Been meaning to get down some things to say about it:  the show was the usual mixed bag, and the production’s ineptitude–despite good voices and some strong performances–failed to solve the abundant problems. Is it an opera, an operetta, or a musical? Should the winking parody style of the musical numbers (including Gilbert and Sullivan and Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy) be reflected in the production or underplayed? How do you deal with the picaresque narrative, which jumps continents and timeframes in its catalog of disasters with cinematic rather that stage logic? And most of all what to do about the fact that, at its core, it’s not a drama: it’s a satire that centers on a philosophical issue rather than a character-driven conflict (the key ingredient of almost all successful operas*). The protagonists,  without the directorial attention of a Mary Zimmermann, turn into very thinly drawn puppets. And even her musical comedy version was a bit like a revue (if winningly so).

That said, if anybody could have done a music-theater piece about an idea, perhaps it was Lenny. After all, He did write a violin concerto about a Platonic dialogue. But even he never seemed to be able to pull the threads together on Candide, and although I don’t regret taking in WNO’s as they did right by the intermittently wonderful score, the show never quite lives up to that wonderful fizzy overture, here conducted by the man himself.

Perhaps somebody should do a movie–the material might not fight the form so intensely.

*Strauss’ Capriccio is perhaps another example of an opera based on an idea “words vs. music” but it has better character development, and still has some problems in the theater.

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Opera Wednesday: Crespin

éIt’s been a while since I have curated any opera clips for you. Following a wild goose chase reference questions about U.S. performances of the Gounod rarity Sapho, I rediscovered its chief (perhaps only) gem, “O, my lyre immortelle” performed here by the late, and much missed French mezzo Regine Crespin.

And keeping with Crespin in French repertoire, but moving to Berlioz, here is the song “Le Spectre de la Rose” from Berlioz’ song cycle “Nuit d’été.”

Given the elegance and control, it’s possible to overlook that this was one of the grandest, largest voices in opera. And what words…you could take down the poem verbatim from this performance.

Finally, some gutsy Verdi–another side of this artist. (Sorry about the weird audio edit.) “O Don Fatale,” from Don Carlo.

Gluck

Revisiting assignments from voice lessons of years ago, and was reminded of the glories of Gluck, as interpreted by the wonderful Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza.

Sort of astonishing to me that this aria is often tackled by beginning classical voice students (certainly where I first encountered it). Granted, it’s a workout for even breath control, but finding the right expressive character, one of gentle ardor, is even more challenging.

And here is Angela Gheorghiu, who perhaps pushes it a little to much into Verdian pathos (and needs the music, seriously?), but has, despite her quirks, a surpassingly beautiful vocal line.

O del mio dolce ardor
Bramato oggetto,
L’aura che tu respiri,
Alfin respiro.

O vunque il guardo io giro,
Le tue vaghe sembianze
Amore in me dipinge:
Il mio pensier si finge
Le più liete speranze;
E nel desio che così
M’empie il petto
Cerco te, chiamo te, spero e sospiro.

I will look for someone who does it in 17th century style one of these days, until then, these true opera stars will have to do.

Opera vs. Musicals

Read a great review of conductor John Mauceri’s memoir cum instruction manual, Maestros and their Music. It includes a quote I love, “‘Carmen’, he says, ‘is my favourite musical and Carousel is my favourite opera.’” –Something that has made me go off and buy the book.

I am in complete agreement with Carousel as a favorite opera (Carmen has always been more ‘meh’ for me, but as a musical it certainly is less of a bore). As examples to prove both points, here is the “If I Loved You” scene from Carousel (with appropriate Broadway and opera royalty respectively in Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn).

This is as beautifully crafted as any Verdi  scene and aria and gets me every time.

In contrast, Carmen almost never moves me. (My fault I fear.) But the odd, problematic, yet compulsively watchable film adaptation,Carmen Jones works as a musical in some sense that opera doesn’t. Both can’t dodge a certain campy excess, but the movie, despite its faults, doesn’t over stay its welcome like the opera, and has wit and spirit (something that most productions of the opera, at least the ones I have seen, sadly lack).

The thing they have in common? Oscar Hammerstein II.

New Stars, Old Tech

Met Opera stars Piotr Beczala and Susanna Phillips teamed up with some audio historians to make recordings using wax cylinders, technology that is a century old, and helped make household names of Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba.

Anthony Tommasini of the NYTimes has the story. And the Met has put up (an oddly amateurish) video of the experiment.

This isn’t the first time this has been tried. The great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson made a recording using acoustical technology rather than electronic microphones. She presented it anonymously to some music critics to see if they could identify her. They couldn’t, and one said, “I don’t know who it was, but it clearly wasn’t a major singer.”

There are all sorts of speculations I’ve harbored about the intersection between opera and recording technology over many years as a more or less faithful opera aficionado. One is raised by this current experiment–how did people hear these recordings? (With the same thrill we can get from a modern high def recording with fidelity to the nth degree?) Or as a faint souvenir of a great voice?

Also, how did recording change the artform–and was it for the better? Certainly it’s easy to speculate that the emphasis on voice above all (which is still the dominant view, if contested) is amplified by a century’s worth of audio, where of course what you have is the voice front and center–and presented in a way that rewards obsessive comparative opera fanaticism. (And pace, yes, I think the voice is important, but I don’t think opera is “about voices,” per se.  Rather, is a thrill because opera is more than the sum of its parts, including theatrical values, such as the physical production, the direction, and overall musical conception, the narrative and dramatic quality of the work, etc. These don’t necessarily show up on wax cylinders, or on CDs or downloads for that matter. (Of course opera on video does provide a sense of this this, and has become for me at least, a lot more rewarding than audio only.)

Finally there is a paradoxical thing–although I find these recordings hard to listen to at many levels, the surface is scratchy and the dynamic range so limited, and yet… they do offer a window into a world of singers and styles that is fascinating, and some singers I have come to treasure (and I hear you saying, because of the voice, and that’s true).

Amelita Galli-Curci is the prime example of this for me. Astonishing technique,  elegant style, and as a YouTube commenter points out, perhaps the most natural singer on the opera stage of her era, or any since.

“Solving” Così fan Tutte

The Met has a new production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, a radiant if troubling work that revolves around two pairs of lovers engaged in a test of fidelity, in which the men, with increasing intensity (either comic or melodramatic depending on the direction) try to woo one anothers’ fiancées.

Director Phelim McDermott has set it in a 1950s Coney Island amusement park, complete with sideshow performers, and an appealing cast with ardent young lovers, and the established star baritone Christopher Maltman as Don Alfonso (sometimes played as an aging and cynical character part, but here a much more nuanced and better sung performance).  Best of all was Broadway star Kelli O’Hara as the saucy maid, Despina, who with Don Alfonso, is the motor which makes the entire funny cruel game work. Her singing was exemplary and as others have pointed out, she inhabited the role physically and vocally. Not always something you see on an opera stage. She was compelling every minute.

I caught the rebroadcast of the Met in HD airing  tonight and came away thinking that although Cosi remains a challenge–depending on your take on the joke it’s either bleakly misogynistic, or a deeply cynical about any kind of romantic love–this production resolved more of the problems in theme, philosophy and staging than others I’ve seen. (And since it’s one of my favorite operas musically I’ve seen it a lot.)

The best thing thing was a dazzling way of handling the scene changes with motel room doors that become interiors as they spun around. Really ingenious and in keeping with the ever changing sense of the principals’ relationships.

The carnival setting worked too-solving the last scene in which the the men come back as themselves via a magical chest (also playing a role in the opening gesture in the opera). And the vexing question of whether the opera ends in the original configuration of lovers or reflects the results of the game (generally thought to be unresolved in the score and libretto) was resolved in a manner both convincing and droll.

The sideshow performers were natural parts of it somehow–humanity in all its variety being one of both Mozart’s and McDermott’s preoccupation. And the subtle point that in this opera–as in so many–everybody is lying to everybody else at some point was underlined. Only the sideshow performers were honest–well and truly themselves with no artifice except their art itself. It was a point that it’s easy to see Mozart smiling at.

It will likely show up on PBS or in theaters in HD repeats this summer. If you are an opera fan, worth taking a look.

Opera Tidbits: Don Carlo

Took in Washington National Opera’s Don Carlo this week.  The best Verdi singing at the company in a long time, particularly notable in this extremely challenging opera. It actually sounded like a real life opera company!  (It didn’t look like one, the clumsy production–particularly ill-fitting costumes and high school dramatic society level lighting on a borderline offensive set concept were something you just had to decide to overlook).

The Schiller play on which Verdi based the opera. By Egid Verhelst – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Privatsammlung Baden-Württemberg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4115888

But the singing was glorious. This is something you expect from Eric Owens and Jamie Barton, both of whom are Met regulars and possessed of glorious instruments that they put use in conveying meaning and character. But Quinn Kelsey, who was just a name to me, was a knockout Posa, manly, vocally secure and incisive, and also touching in his ability to add vulnerability to a role that some bellow through. Leah Crocetto has been in DC before, and proved her mettle in a dazzling “Tu Che La Vanità”–a bit general in her character, but gorgeous full top to her voice, and the requisite dignity for the pure, troubled Elisabeth. Russell Thomas will not banish thoughts of great Don C’s of yore (it’s a tribute the rest of the gang that they did put previous casts out of my mind, and particularly made the second half of this long opera fly by).  But although occasionally a bit under powered in this company, he had a wonderful “Hamlet” kind of thing going on, where you heard and saw his divided loyalties, fraught passions and terrible dilemmas of filial loyalty, political passions, and ardent love. (This particular Verdi opera lays all of this most political composers signature concerns on in excess. He really couldn’t leave anything out, and the auto-da-fé scene, always hard to stage, was just awful in this conception, with what might have been meant to be an evocation of 20th century totalitarianism, instead of coming off as sort of clumsy regie-dinner-theater.)

But never mind, it was a glorious performance musically and If you don’t know Don Carlo, it is something that grows on you, or at least did me, from once seeming unrelentingly dark and long (and of murky plot, since it is almost always significantly cut.) But it is one of his greatest works, and his perhaps his most concentrated take on men’s dilemmas (and his none too charitable view of how they respond).

Three excerpts to win you over:

The extraordinary Shirley Verrett singing “Oh Don Fatale” from a BBC broadcast.

Monserrat Caballé, who for me at least, was above all, a great Verdian. Here she is in a concert performance of Elisabeth’s aria, “Tu Che La Vanità”

Next, Sherill Milnes and Placido Domingo (Rodrigo/Posa and Carlo) in the duet in which they pledge eternal loyalty and friendship in the best “shoulder to shoulder” Verdi style.

And for a bonus, the same duet with the great Verdi baritone of the ages, Piero Cappuccilli (and the tenor, Carlo Bergonzi also a marvel). Listen to their words. They mean every one.

The Gluck Berlioz connection

Composers frequently find touchstones in earlier composers, but few seem to manifest as direct a lineage (or in some ways as surprising) as Hector Berlioz’ connection with the music Christoph Willibald Gluck, whom he venerated above all opera composers.

“There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck. The former’s realm is that of infinite thought, the latter’s that of infinite passion; and though Beethoven is far above Gluck as a musician, there is so much of each in the other that these two Jupiters form a single god, and all we can do is to lose ourselves in admiration and respect for him.”

In his study and scholarship on the Gluck scores (already old-fashioned in Paris during Berlioz’s era),  a musical revolutionary composer found common cause with a master of classical equilibrium. Here is Gluck from Iphigenie en Tauride, Regine Crespin singing “Cette nuit … O toi qui prolongeas mes jours“) (Iphigenia always brought forth magic from him–he pretty much owns the doomed classical heroine fach.)

And then, from Berlioz’ The Trojans (as classical a theme as Gluck could have wished for), the duet for Dido and Aeneas that closes Act III. More doom, more beauty and radiance.) A performance with Susan Graham and Gregory Kunde.

“I assure you, dear sister, that the music in Les Troyens is something noble and elevated; it is also compelling and truthful, and if I am not much mistaken there are a number of novelties which will arrest the ears of musicians throughout Europe and perhaps make their hair stand on end. It seems to me that were Gluck to come back to life, he would say of me on hearing the work: “Here in truth is my son.” Hardly modest, you will say. But at least I am modest enough to admit to be lacking in modesty.”

Three Tenore di Grazia

Inspired by the quiz during last Saturday’s Met b’cast, here is a quick hit of “tenore di Grazia,” that is, graceful tenors, not the heroic breed required for Wagner or heavy Verdi, but the elegant perfectly controlled sound that makes bel canto music shine.  (Tenors of any kind are a rare breed, and a true tenor di grazia is a particular treasure.) Javier Camerana, one of the current ideals of this type, named three of his favorites during his quiz appearance. Here’s a sampling of all three:

The German tenor Fritz Wunderich, golden sound, perfect production with evenness of tone across the whole range, and attentive to the words.  Here in a deceptive simple Handel aria. If you don’t have a feel for cantilena, the long singing line, this number falls flat.

Talk about a long line, and not one moment of vocal pressure!

Next, the great Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, spectacular range, sensitivity to text and ability to inflect it to a ‘part per million’ and the fearlessness required to sing softly when the piece calls for it. (Harder than singing loud for most opera singers, and why “can belto” is so frequently applicable in the opera house, or these days in Broadway musicals.) Here he is in Roméo’s aria from Gounod’s Roméo & Juliette, a role he owned during his very long career.

Finally, a tenor from an earlier generation also beloved by Javier and many others, Cesare Valletti. Here he is in an aria from Massenet’s Werther, exhibiting an almost superhuman poise, while singing in the highest range of voice. You hear the heartsick obsession of the young man, it seems to pour out of him in a single breath. And this was live on the radio!

Finally, for good measure, here is Javier himself, who set me off on this enjoyable visit to tenore di grazia of yesteryear. An excerpt from  his performances in Rossini’s Semiramide currently at the Met (live March 10 on the radio).

Wonderful line, agile, warm sound, with a smile in his voice. Love to that in the great tenor tradition, has to stand on a box to sing his high note so as not to be shorter than his love interest. (Tenors, dear reader, on the whole are shorter than those they woo. It’s just how it goes. I know whereof I speak.)

Happy Wednesday!

 

 

 

Listen to this: Albina Shagimuratova

Tipped by an Opera News profile, I spent a pleasant hour hunting down YouTube videos of the Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova. The hunt confirmed that David Shengold in ON rightly praised her staggering technique, and noted that she is building a career as a stylish artist. Listen for yourself.

Three samples:

1. Bits of Ah! fors’e lui … Sempre libera from La Traviata. (Very strange filming, seems like a pops concert?) But spot on, affecting singing.

2. “Regnava nel silenzio… Quando, rapito in estasi” from Lucia di Lammermoor (again chunks of it, in a performance at WQXR). It’s a coloratura showpiece, and she nails that, but she has found some inward character too (and high notes for days.)

3. Finally, the Queen of the Night’s Vengance Aria. This piece usually comes off as party trick to me–notorious for its difficulty, maybe better known for its ring tone appearance than its place in the opera. And of course, boasting the highest note generally required of an operatic soprano (F above high C). Although that has been topped this season at the Met. Generally people can sing it or they can’t, and many who can don’t really seem to be able to do  much else. She can! Even the La Scala audience agrees.

One to watch.