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.

Wagner on Tristan

On a Tristan und Isolde kick because of a writing assignment. It’s an opera I don’t think I got until I turned 50 (and saw the Met’s weird but gorgeously sung  production.)

One of Wagner’s many inamoratas, Mathilde Wesendonck, helped inspire the opera, and he wrote thus to her: “… I have never written anything like it before–you will indeed marvel when you hear it.”  “To me Tristan remains a wonder! I….I shall be eternally grateful to you for the fact that I have written Tristan.



Musical Words: “You’re damn good, Vickers”

The great tenor Jon Vickers has died, age 88. Gramophone has an obituary with the “damn good” quote from Sir Thomas Beecham, as well as a reflection from the much missed critic John Steane about one thing that makes a great singer:  a ‘quality around’ particular aspects of the voice: that golden core of sound that can go from soft to overpowering by seeming to glow brighter rather than merely get louder.

Vickers, with that torrent of sound and extraordinary stage persona, had this quality in spades. Here’s his performance of Otello’s death scene, which gives you a sense of the voice, the sovereign vocal skill and that  wild place–it always feels “outside” to me somehow–that his performances came from.

After that (particularly that staggering “I have a second dagger moment”) you are grateful for the applause and for the calm reasoned voice of Martin Bookspan to bring you back to earth.

Jon Vickers, who died age 88 on July 10, 2015. Pictured here in Les Troyens one of his great roles, with another treasured and much missed artist, Shirley Verrett.

Odd Worlds: Robots in Opera

Possibly a first in alternative casting, Komische Oper Berlin, has built an opera around a robot who is learning about opera.  The Guardian has a video report.

robot_operaAnd there is more info on KOB’s site about the piece, My Square Lady. While you are there, check out the imaginative production of Magic Flute they recently had on. This was staged by the innovative London-based outfit 1927, a group that, among other things, integrates animation and film into live theater. Judging from this Flute, this is an approach that makes for sophisticated theatrical dazzle. Da Ponte (and Brecht too, for that matter) would be pleased I bet.



Die Zauberflöte Trailer from Komische Oper Berlin on Vimeo


30 Days of Opera Tidbits Day 2: G&S and Character

stampContinuing my ( occasional) posting on bite-size intros to opera, today a quick consideration of Gilbert and Sullivan. This refers to a collection of comic operettas written by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert over about 25 years in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Very topical in their time, these tuneful pieces sent up everything from the “aesthetic” movement of Wilde et al, “A languid love for lilies does not blight me!” confesses the faux aesthete in Patience to  the do-nothing politicians that seem to plague any era, “The House of Peers, throughout the war/Did nothing in particular, And did it very well” (From Iolanthe).

There are all kinds pleasures big and small in the G&S oeuvre worth pointing out, but I’ll keep it to a couple that relate to opera directly, first in re the old debate about words and music. G&S provides an object lesson of how both can work together, a requirement for a successful opera, which is, despite its reputation a theatrical not a purely musical form. There is probably not much profit in trying to analyze of why or how exactly it works (in G&S no less than in Mozart and DaPonte), but somehow when the wedding is successful you hear the narrative, dramatic, and expressive, ideas of the music realized in the words, and vice versa. The whole gains moral force some how. There is also the need for attention to the sounds of the words as a aspect of the music in itself, something which Gilbert managed, while also managing to let off quite a lot of comic firecrackers.

In capsule: in opera, ideally words and music work together, melding meaning as well as sound.

Then to character: The other thing that G&S shares with opera is the use of an aria to introduce and illuminate a character. (This is not unique to opera, Shakespeare has “aria” like introductions for some characters, and movies and plays introduce characters, whether simple ‘types’ or more nuanced. Sondheim’s <em>Into the Woods</em> does this almost schematically, something thrown into unfortunate relief by the recent film.)

However, opera gets some special kung-fu from the opportunity it offers a protagonist to come out on stage, say “welcome to me!” and proceed to show his or her vocal and theatrical stuff. To wit (chosen from many good examples):

Kevin Kline in the Public Theater’s production of The Pirates of Penzance from the late 70s; he certainly offers a winning self-introduction!

The Met in HD and Regional Opera

The old Met, back B.D. (before digital), the mother ship for opera in the U.S.
The old Met, back B.D. (before digital), the mother ship for opera in the U.S.
We are in the thick of the opera season, and one way you know that is that the Met radio broadcasts (which have been around since 1920) and the Met in HD theater simulcasts, that started in 2006, are going full swing.

If you haven’t heard of the Met in HD, it is a successful effort by the media savvy general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, to get the Met to a wider audience. On selected Saturday afternoons, 12 this season, the opera is also transmitted live to movie theaters, in a way that is both screen friendly, that is, with hosts and interviews, but also manages to relay some of the vibe of attending the real thing. All this happens for the price of a $20-30 ticket. There are also repeat showings, and the videos are made available online via a subscription service, on DVD, now on Amazon Prime, and even once in a blue moon on PBS, which is pretty allergic to opera these days.

I’ve caught a bunch of the Met HD performances and am looking forward to The Merry Widow next weekend (even though the reviews are not particularly glowing). In DC where they show at a couple of theaters it’s sometimes so packed you have to get there way early—at least in Bethesda, and the behavior of the crowd has some of the pleasures and plagues of the actual Met Opera attendees. Dressing in evening clothes for a Saturday movie is one odd vestige. Looking back over the five or six I’ve attended, the only place where I really saw a mostly young crowd was State College, PA, a university town.

The Dilemma
But in any case, people are going, and in droves. This has raised a question: is the Met in HD, for all the theatrical pleasures it offers and its democratizing spirit, eroding the audience for regional opera companies in the U.S. and abroad? It’s a hard question to answer with complete confidence–by some measures live performing arts audiences across multiple, although not all, categories are declining, and opera audiences–although we are loud and ardent–are not all that substantial a percentage in the first place.

Even if, definitely linking the advent of the MetHD simulcasts to audience decline is probably not possible, you certainly hear anecdotes to this effect. The Telegraph music writer Rupert Christensen has noted this phenomena and I heard about a town in Canada that used to organize bus trips to a larger city for people who wanted to attend live opera, but once the small town got the Met in HD nobody signed up.

If you grant the premise, that the MetHD (and the reality that we have more content at the push of a button than ever before a non-stop 24/7 amount of classical programming from Sirius/XM and Medici) is killing off at least some regional opera, I think that may be okay.

That’s apostasy, I realize, and my argument goes back a bit for context: In the 19th century, opera–like other performing arts events–was mostly available in the U.S., if at all, through touring companies that traveled from venue to venue. Big stars and companies were the ones traveling from town to town (or in some cases across oceans see Fellini’s magical “And the Ship Sailed On” for a taste of this) and venues in each town formed a network of presenters. It really was the venue that formed the main nodes in the network.

These mostly weren’t opera companies in the modern sense. Although, the Met the oldest company in the U.S. dates from 1883, and there was some activity in New Orleans before that, the notion of home-grown regional production of opera (or regional theater for that matter) is a 20th century phenomena, one that grew vibrantly in the middle part of the century. In part this is thanks to the business model of the subscription season which provided enough money to plan ahead. (The subscription was invented in Chicago by an enterprising publicist named Danny Newman, for many years associated with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was and is a very successful example of a regional opera company.) Organizations with a subscriber base, a venue, and some year around artistic and administrative staff became the norm.

The narrative about these local opera companies is heart-warming: “look, we’ve got opera in [fill in the blank with a mid-size city] and singer [blank] started here and still returns.” But, and this is said with deep respect for what a difficult and expensive art form this is to present, the results were widely uneven. If, as Placido Domingo has quipped, opera is like vocal Olympics, and it is, small companies were tasked with putting on the Olympics three or four times a year for a few days, providing jobs and entertainment it must be granted. (That the Met, Vienna Opera, Covent Garden and Paris Opera have to do it every night for 8 months is too crazy making to think about.)

The productions these regional opera companies gave were local franchises of a national brand called “opera.” They drew often, not invariably, from the same pool of singers (that is good singers but who were affordable, plus the occasionally higher tier star or two, supplemented by young artists on their way up), they did the same operas, generally pulling from the top 20 most popular, and relied on the artistic staff and materials–be that directors, sets, costumes, etc. that were shared and rented to and fro. (When I was going to a lot of regional opera for work, you could see the same set pop up in city after city. It happened last year with WNO’s Elixir, a set I saw first a decade and a half ago in San Diego.)

This “franchise” approach wasn’t characteristic of every company, and what regional companies provided was far from uniformly bad. But bad or good, it has been deeply disrupted by technology and digital distribution—as surely as Amazon has disrupted the book business. The Met in HD is only the most obvious sign of this disruption, but it’s not the only one and it’s not going away, any more than Amazon is.

The Amazon analogy has its weaknesses—if you ordered Dublinesque from Amazon or if you bought it from Borders, you do after all get the same book. Whereas if you want a live experience, the movie theater is only sort of live, whereas the in-person opera house performance is. But the question is complicated by cost—Merry Window is going to be $24, and isn’t otherwise on this season in DC or Boston, the places I work and live, and if it were, it’s not likely to include the participation of Renée Fleming, Nathan Gunn, and Susan Strohman. Instead, it might well have a cast that comes together relatively quickly to put on a show at a professional but not a distinctive standard and then scatters to travel to the next gig.

Regional opera is stuck with this dilemma, not every company or every production, but enough to ask whether it’s reasonable to expect their audience to come to productions of operas on the HD schedule. If the heart of your artistic product is something that is available down the street—in a similar enough experience–at significantly cheaper cost and at higher quality level, why should people go? A new network provides multiple ways to get a good, if people exploit that network instead of remaining loyal to your version, it seems to me useless to go “bad network!” and gnash teeth. That’s what tech innovation often does, it disrupts! More profitable is to ask: what need could we fill now? and what does this mean for the future?

The first question seems to me the easier one to answer, and some opera companies are doing so–that is, offering something that the Met, and more generally, the digital network isn’t going to do, and do it with some a locally-responsive (locavore opera, if you will) artistic and administrative approach. In some cases, these are things opera companies have often offered, but doing them conceptualized in a new way–premieres that relate to local stories, engagement with young artists, community outreach that is two-way–where the community influences the company and vice-versa. But it does require two things: putting to rest the last vestiges of a long-lost touring tradition, where big stars blow through town, do their party piece and leave. “Pearls to the provinces” has to go.

The other thing that has to go is the implicit and related “it’s all about the big shows” mentality. That means, to put it crassly, if your education and outreach is ultimately about building audience for your main stage “franchise” productions, you are doing it wrong way around. Your education goals—and community goals—should drive your main stage activity. This probably means that a company will be organized around something other than “the national franchise” no “top 20 operas” focus, but rather take an alternate path. Opera Layfayette in Washington and NYC has done this by mining true rarities. (And we’re not talking Rossini’s “La Donna Del Lago,” here, but rather Félicien David’s “Lalla Roukh”.) There are other ways I’m sure are being cooked up in opera—it is an artform remarkable for reinventing itself. Some of those ways probably involve digital learning, after all Peter Gelb isn’t the only one allowed to be technically innovative!

It may be that for some companies, it’s just finding graceful ways to wind down, and to accept that at least in the present form that are not needed. But I honestly think shifts–and the preservation of jobs–are very possible, maybe even likely. I would point to bookstores like Politics and Prose or Brookline Booksmith that have responded to destruction of one aspect of the bookstore eco-system by Amazon by becoming part of a new eco-system of bookstore as community organization.

The other, and to me more challenging question is what this does to “place.” In essence, the MetHD does embody that horrid phrase “the world is flat.” The Met is all over the place now, and as digital networks further infiltrate everybody’s life and choice of what they do with their time, the one-time status of having a venue (and its corollary the subscription series) is not long for this world. Something that is no doubt being tossed around at this weekend’s Arts Presenters conference. Sipping loose of venues is already occurring in arts presentation—in DC we’ve got classical things, which some critics sniff at, in a synagogue cum community center. In Boston, there’s an enterprising group doing house concerts with string quartets and the like. And in a very real sense, the “venue” now often means digital space, fed by a digital product, be that a movie theater, the iPad, the phone, Google Glass, god knows what’s next. That may excite you or freak you out–or just make you tired, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist seems ridiculous. Given enough computer savvy and willingness to pay for subscriptions—not insignificant issues, I grant—you can get as much opera as you ever could in the history of the world. That world may not yet have arrived at your doorstep as an arts professional or an arts goer, but it will, so might as well embrace it, and turn to some–however wary–embrace, rather than resistance.