30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 28, In Praise of One Own’s Time (2)

Rosa Ponselle, considered the greatest soprano of the 20th century. She was no Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient,

Longing for the “good ole days” is particularly prevalent in opera. I’ve come to see such nostalgia as silly, even corrosive in large amounts. After all, “the end [of opera] has always been nigh,” as Rupert Christiansen put it in a recent issue of Opera, going on to point out that “in 1834, Richard Mount Edgcumbe was unmoved by Pasta or Malibran and complained that he ‘never expected to hear again…any new music, or new singers, that will make me amends for those which are gone’; in 1906 (considered the heart of one of opera’s many golden ages), W.J. Henderson was lamenting ‘that the race of beautiful singers is diminishing with every year, and in its place there is growing up a generation of harsh, unrefined, tuneless shouters.” Guess that included Ponselle, who was 6 in 1905, Caruso, who was at the height of his powers, Claudio Muzio, Farrar, Journet, McCormack, et al and many more. Now of course these singers are dubbed the best who ever lived, and used to spank the current crop as, “tuneless unmusical shouters” or worse.

Well, there are spectacular talents in our midst; here is one I heard just recently at the Kennedy Center, the young South African soprano Pretty Yende, getting her coloratura on in a Rossini scena.
She is a natural on stage, totally communicative, and it’s also remarkable that her voice is not only fluent and supple, but huge. (Coloratura sopranos often trade agility for tonal richness and full sound, Yende, like many of the greats she is compared with and may well take a place beside, has both). She also communicates things via singing that you don’t get any other way, and believes every moment.

Oh, and she’s 29.

Happy Birthday, Verdi!

Today is the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth, and lots of celebrations around the web and on stage.  One of the best is likely to be the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Requiem conducted by Muti, a great Verdian.

Streaming live at 7:30 Central and up for a year after that.  http://cso.org/res/VerdiRequiem/

And here are some gems from YouTube, Verdi in three moods, and pieces that have meant a lot to me over the years, representative of his dark, but honest sensibility and extraordinary musical power:

Caballé’s “O patria mia” from Aïda.

Price’s “Pace, Pace” from Forza

and Domingo and Milnes in the Don Carlo duet:

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Verdi, 1813-1901, & as long as people listen to opera.

New York City Opera’s Woes

Yesterday, zombie grammar rules and today zombie opera companies. Some might argue that New York City Opera (a place dear to many, including to me, as their first entrée into the art form–Turandot, 1976) is already the walking dead, unsteadily traversing different venues, with neither a set home nor a sufficient budget. Dead, and nearly dead companies are not unknown in recent years: not a happy roll call: Opera Boston was borked while I was still up there, Cleveland Opera, Opera Pacific…these are just the ones I can mention from memory. I’m sure there are others.

City Opera is different, not only because it was (despite at least two near-death experiences earlier in its history) a big part of the NYC and national opera scene, full season, launching pad for many starry careers (Sills and Domingo get mentioned most, but Ramey and von Stade were also NYCO babies once upon a time and their web site claims Reneé Fleming too). It also, particularly during the Julius Rudel years, in retrospect likely to be considered the company’s golden age, did first-rate work in an adventurous and plucky way.  To pick one, not quite at random, milestone–the production in 1966 of Handel’s Julius Caesar by NYCO with Sills as Cleopatra (she sort of extorted Rudel into casting her instead of Phyllis Curtin) was a big hit, adding energy to what would become a world-wide interest in Handel’s stage works, now part of most opera companies’ rep.

More recently though, things seem like a mess, particularly on the business side of the house. The ill-fated Gerald Mortier appointment was head-scratching for many in and out of the biz. Venue problems, labor problems, board and governance discord. George Steele, the general manager and artistic director, and who some considered over-parted in at least the gm part of the role, (a Rodolfo cover being asked to sing Siegmund?), has been credited with leading some artistically daring and successful projects (in the NYCO tradition) but he has not done well, at least by my lights, in solving the biggest problem the company faces, namely creating an identity for NYCO as anything other than a permanent invalid.

Granted, forging an identity can be a tricky thing. Big personalities like Sills don’t come along every day. The Met has stolen some of what was once NYCO’s thunder–young talent shows up there first (the phenomenal Pretty Yende might have been a City Opera find a generation ago, yet earlier this year she went straight to the Met); The Met’s GM Peter Gelb has also championed new works, innovative directors, and then there is the Met in HD, which, for all its pleasures, cannibalizes even the Met’s own subscribers.

But an identity is not something an arts organization can opt out of. City Opera’s desperate answer to the “who are we?” question is “We are the People’s Opera,” flogged as a phrase to rally around. It shows up in my FB feed, and they have opened a KickStarter campaign to raise $1 million (a fraction of what they need). Like most KickStarter campaigns, it’s got a video, and that left me unfazed, in fact a little hostile.

No, NYCO, I’m not giving you money just because you need it. To me “The People’s Opera” rings false because it describes what the company once was, not what it is today. I would give money because I identify in some way with the organization, believe in it as it is now, and have a reasonable expectation that what it is becoming will provide some artistic meaning and experiences worth the magnitude of the ask. Tell me that story (better yet, let others —audience members, composers, and artists, for instance—speak for themselves on what the company is and means to them). (Even if Steele is the right NYCO head, he cannot be the only voice, given the doubts, justified or not, many have about his leadership.) Make it clear to me that the company has a chance to be functional business-wise and coherent enough artistically to be around along enough to make good on my support.

In short, tell me why I should come along on what looks like a zombie road trip with you. “Salve me, fons pietatis,” won’t suffice. And although, I ardently hope it’s not Mimì’s death scene, frankly that is preferable, for me at least, to indefinite zombie operatic hospice.

Julus Caesar
A memento of a better era in City Opera’s history: Sills’ spectacular Cleopatra. (Excuse the terrible video.)

Two Ingemisco performances

Title page of Verdi’s Requiem

Lots of opera promo work recently (one of my many freelance gigs), and, of course, digging up YouTube videos of great opera performances hardly counts as work for me.

Two for your delectation–in particular, for my fellow operavore, Andrea.

This is the tenor solo from Verdi’s Requiem, short, but as demanding as many of his arias in range, expression, and the notorious Verdi “climb,” in which the singer has to move up the staff to reach a climatic note (either loud or soft) in a way that requires phenomenal control over breath and dynamics.

The first YouTube clip is Jussi Bjorling. A performance from 1939…and so masterly that it was still the one I grew up listening to 40 years later.

(Sorry for the pedantic German comments. Although insightful, they take an unnecessary swipe at Gigli and his “sobs”).

And from earlier this year, New Jersey tenor, Michael Fabiano.

This 29-year-old knows what he is doing–and certainly refutes the idea that there is nobody with the instrument or the style around for this kind of music. If he is coming to your neighborhood (he’ll be in DC in September) go hear him sing!

Beautiful Music: Jamie Barton wins Cardiff Singer of the World

American mezzo (I’d call her a contralto with high notes) Jamie Barton has won the Cardiff Singer of the World Award. This is the premiere classical vocal competition, a platform that has helped launch singers such as Terfel, Mattila, and Hvorostovsky.

Here’s her award winning performance from Adriana Lecouvreur:Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 3.54.00 PM

And here she is in last year’s Tucker gala (where the standard of singing was astoundingly high) doing the show piece from La Favorite.

Perhaps a few things to work out technically at the top of the voice, but great poise, breath control for ages, and a Marilyn Horne-like power and commitment. And she is alive and singing like this right now. Every so often, it’s worth wondering what it might be like to encounter a golden age of opera in its early days, rather than bemoaning that “they just don’t make ’em like the used to.” She’s got a ways to go, perhaps, but is, like Pretty Yende, a “true type” opera singer in the great tradition.

Beautiful Music: Two By Stravinsky

In this “The Rite of Spring” 100th anniversary year, much has been made of this epoch making work. And rightly so, as craggy monuments of genius go, it’s still got its rough edges and brilliance are intact–“news that stays new.” Fortunately, without the riots.

In can get lost in the shuffle that Stravinsky had many, many facets. His neoclassical works have always engaged me (perhaps because as a young chorister I came to grips, sort of, with the tenor II part to his cantata/opera “Oedipus Rex,” and as one does with a work that at first flummoxes you, came to love it.)

The Rake’s Progress is much later, but also has the astringent, precise quality of Stravinsky in neoclassical mode–particularly the spot on string writing and the stunning, angular but expressive vocal lines.

Since I loved these works, I naturally encouraged the singers I met one summer working at Central City Opera to listen to them and consider learning arias from them. “Such good audition pieces,” I gushed. Nuts. They are staggeringly difficult to bring off, and in the unlikely event you have the musical chops to master them, many a pianist is going to break out in a cold sweat when you ask them to open up the score. Sight reading a Stravinsky aria at tempo, with rhythmic accuracy, and when a job is on the line… Better stick to Quando me’n vo’.

Here are two singers who have no trouble with the Stravinsky, though. First Dawn Upshaw, doing Anne Truelove from The Rake’s Progress. This role was a calling card for this great American soprano. She recorded it on an early album, and later performed the role all over. Here she is singing about Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s take on a very old-fashioned operatic form, the scene and aria: four parts, recit, aria, tempo di mezzo, and cabaletta (with repeat). New wine in an old bottle.

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From Oedipus Rex (full work on YouTube), Creon’s aria (sung by a young Bryn Terfel in a production by Julie Taymor). Creon is bringing news from the oracle: there’s a murderer in their midst. The original has a narrator who explains the action. Taymor, influenced by Noh theater, among other traditions, has a Japanese performer doing this job.

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Even if 20th century opera is not your thing, what performances! (And yes, and I realize that Bryn could probably use the hands at a football match. Greek drama, football match…not perhaps so different.)


Critical Words: Arnold Whittall on Meistersinger

Every month the classical music magazine Gramophone does a feature comparing recordings of some great monument of classical music. This month Arnold Whittall is surveying Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg versions on disc and and DVD and is, as is his wont, perceptive, even-handed and fleet of phrase.

Here’s a bit in which he takes care of a mid-century performance by the great Wotan, Hans Hotter.

The 1956 Bayreuth performance under André Cluytens is treasurable for capturing Hans Hotter‘s Sachs at its most subtle and least wobbly, though the Walhall sound quality is poor and Wolfgang Windgassen’s ardent but soulless Walther is an acquired taste.

39 words and you know what you need to know.

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Nürnberg possibly as it was in Hans Sachs’ day.

By the way, I heard James Morris (another great Wotan) on WQRX recalling this tidbit about Meistersinger: “I believe that Die Meistersinger is the greatest single work of art ever produced by man. It took more skill to plan and write it than it took to plan and write the whole canon of Shakespeare.” –H.L. Mencken. His trademark hyperbole, no doubt, but it is a kind of overwhelming opera to come to grips with (and is, to my mind, going for something completely different from the aims of Shakespeare).

Operatic Style: Bergonzi & Cappuccilli

There’s been a real dearth of opera on the blog (although not in my life, given the Met broadcasts of the Ring, Dialogues, and Julius Caesar). And I know you’ve all been clamoring for it!

To remedy, here are two exemplars of Verdian style, Carlo Bergonzi and Piero Cappuccilli singing the big duet from Don Carlo. Vocal vigor, commitment to the text, and stunning voices.


And just to prove the that I’m not exclusively hung up on old singers, Alagna and Terfel doing that sure fire number from The Pearl Fishers, “Au fond du temple saint.”


National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, 11/30

At a Solemn Music

by John Milton

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’ns joy,
Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath’d sense able to pierce,
And to our high-rais’d phantasie present,
That undisturbed Song of pure concent,
Ay sung before the saphire-colour’d throne
To him that sits theron
With Saintly shout, and solemn Jubily,
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,
And the Cherubick host in thousand quires
Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious Palms,
Hymns devout and holy Psalms
Singing everlastingly;
That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against natures chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endles morn of light.

Four lines of which were set by Handel in the glorious soprano aria, “Let the Bright Seraphim,” from the his opera Samson. Here is Joan Sutherland, “La Stupenda,” singing it.

Dartmouth has a helpful gloss on the poem.

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