West Side Stories at the Movies and a Golden Voice of Today

As those who follow musical theater know, Steven Spielberg’s new film of ‘West Side Story’ was recently released. Getting mixed reviews, it has also renewed interest in the first film version, from 1961, directed by Robert Wise when all those remarkable creators, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim were still alive.

Omicron has kept me from seeing the new version in a theater, which judging by the trailer, is the best venue. The droll and insightful Mark Kermode gives it a mostly favorable review, though others have been hard on the film and/or the original material. Adam Mars-Jones cavil does seem plausible as he points out that adding an interracial romance is “a development that drives a coach and horses through the entire plot. If interracial marriage is no big deal then what is there left of West Side Story? Not much.”

I haven’t seen much mention of Bernstein’s own recording of the score made in 1984, and derided at the time for its use of famous opera singers, then considered vanity casting for a vain self-indulgent composer-conductor. The New Republic review of the recording sneered “Upper West Side Story” in its headline. It’s now a classic (at least by my lights), not to replace the Broadway Original Cast Album but to stand beside it as a great composer’s authoritative thoughts on one of the century’s best musicals.

A doc on the making of the recording was put out at the time, and bits and pieces of it turn up on YouTube.

The doc’s most famous sequence is José Carreras struggling to handle the complexities of ‘Something’s Coming.’ But listen to Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos singing “A Boy Like That & I Have a Love” for some glorious vocalism. It’s also amazing to watch the composer’s regular producer John McClure do his job. Managing all the moving parts of recording a complicated score is a big lift under any circumstance, with Bernstein it was sometimes herculean, and John was on the receiving end of his fair share snappish Lenny moments, judging by this film. Yet they made some 200 records together.

Speaking of golden age talents like Te Kanawa and Bernstein, for fans of glorious voices I recommend the New Year’s Eve concert presented by the Munich Radio Orchestra with star tenor Javier Camarena. It’s full of old chestnuts (fans of ‘Granada’ and ‘Nessun Dorma’ will not be disappointed) as well as delightful zarzuela numbers, all delivered with honeyed tone, superb diction and high notes that gave me goosebumps. The band and their conductor, Ivan Repušic, acquit themselves beautifully as well.  I don’t know how long BR-Klassik will keep it live, so if operatic tenors are your thing, check it out now.

Tenor Javier Camarena thrills with the Munich Radio Orchestra for New Year’s Eve 2021-22

Free Concerts for this Moment of Social Distancing

With live performances shut down in many places (Boston and DC, where I go to shows are basically shuttered through at least the end of the month), live presenters and producers are going online.

A few I know about and the list will grow I’m sure.

The Berlin Philharmonic is performing to an empty hall today at 1 p.m. EDT, Berio and Barkok. This will be streamed live in their Digital Concert Hall, for free. https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/news. The site also notes that anyone can get access to the complete archive (generally a subscription or per concert fee) for free through the end of the month. The perfect time to build your own Beethoven Festival.

The Met is closed but has is streaming archived Live in HD performances on their web site starting Monday. Here’s the list:

Monday, March 16 – Bizet’s Carmen

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starring Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna. Transmitted live on January 16, 2010.

Tuesday, March 17 – Puccini’s La Bohème

Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas. Transmitted live on April 5, 2008.

Wednesday, March 18 – Verdi’s Il Trovatore

Conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Yonghoon Lee, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Transmitted live on October 3, 2015.

Thursday, March 19 – Verdi’s La Traviata

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starring Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, and Quinn Kelsey. Transmitted live on December 15, 2018.

Friday, March 20 – Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment

Conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. Transmitted live on April 26, 2008.

Saturday, March 21 – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

Conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczała, and Mariusz Kwiecien. Transmitted live on February 7, 2009.

Sunday, March 22 – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, starring Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Transmitted live on February 24, 2007.

I saw a number of these, and Dessay’s Fille was a particular delight if you need a few laughs.

And of course Eugene Onegin is one of the most beautiful operas every written, although would be sad to watch it with the late great Hvorostovsky.

Other free streaming efforts: Bayerische Staatsoper (pretty hard to resist a Kaufmann/Harteros Trovatore).

Haven’t seen any theater or ballet notices yet, but will keep an eye out. Maybe Broadway in HD could remove the subscription for a couple of weeks?

Callas + Tebaldi = Caballé

News came down last week that the great Spanish soprano Monserrat Caballé has died. There’s a nicely done obit in the New York Times  with some wonderful excerpts of her singing (check out the pianissimi in the Granados bit from YouTube).

And she is the focus of the beginning of the Gramophone Podcast .   It’s from there that the Callas + Tebaldi equation comes. James Jolly of Gramohphone reports that this was the Times’ headline on Caballe’s history making debut in New York City in 1965, substituting for Marilyn Horne in a performance of Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia at Carnegie Hall. I will have to look up the clipping to confirm, but the general idea seemed to be that Caballé combined the beautiful sound of Renata Tebaldi, the Italian soprano beloved for her creamy middle register and warmth in Puccini and Verdi, as well as the dramatic fire of Maria Callas, whose roles ranged further than Tebaldi’s, particularly to the orate bel canto operas which she helped revive, and Caballé went on to triumph in. (In truth Callas could make beautiful sounds and Tebaldi had dramatic power to spare in the right roles, but the analogy still rings true.)

There is also about all three–and many singers before and since–that x factor of vocal charisma, a sound that seems to saying something personal to you and always catches your attention.  Caballé has it and is one that set a template for a life time of loving opera for me. Perhaps something to attribute at least in part to first encountering her singing as a 13 year old (during my age inappropriate introduction to opera). Everything about her sound, the distinctive vocal color, the the odd glottal stop sound you could hear in her pronunciation, and most of all the ability to spin out soft high notes that that seemed like she was breathing for you. Soft enveloping sound is not what comes to mind first in opera, but those moments are many and she excelled in them.

So in love with her voice was I that I did what any teen does. Played her records over and over and made anybody I could listen to her. My go to introduction “Signore Ascolta” from  Turandot which ends with with one of those magical high notes. Here it is from a concert.

And here is something I’ve always loved, and should be in the dictionary under “soft high singing: perfection,” “Dupuis le jour” from Louise. (Not sure of the source: maybe from a gala performance for Rudolph Bing.)


It seems like the music you hear as a teen sets a template for what “music is” and for me at least Caballé’s sound will always be a big part of what “opera is.”  I’m grateful for that.

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.

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.


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.

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