Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tancredible! (And other desperate compromises in the art of the subject line)

...and then my browser crashed, taking with it my entire Podliad. Which is fine, really, considering especially that nobody likes a broken record. Here are fragments, rescued like the works of Sappho, minus the poetry, the historical significance, and the love of a good softball game.

First pararaph entirely gone. Blah blah have heard her in better voice blah. Wait, no. That's not where I started. Probably something about how not dying on the flooded Sawmill Parkway was the first thrill of the evening. Not dying: always a treat. You probably don't want to hear about the picnic in a car in a parking lot in Pleasantville, New York, where one may exit from the Sawmill in order not to perish. It has little to do with the music and there's no such thing as a vicarious picnic.

After much stomping through the mud, we Podled. Imagine here reconstructed some faint concern about lost agility and a top that sounds about as sure as tech stocks, at least compared to its former stentor, mitigated by the usual awe about the way she plunges right on through it nonetheless. Nothing tentative, nothing cut or cut short. Just a little quaver, a few thicky constructed but/and muscular runs going up or down.

So, some of her Tancredi was the stuff of greatness as usual and some of it worried me a little, but on the whole, am I going to complain? I am not. As noted by Alex on the ride home, she was having none of this semi-staged business and fretted and strutted her hour upon the stage, making her wonderful silent movie sized gestures from her entrance to her death in a folding chair. (What a death has Tancredi: scarcely time to breath his last before the chord resolves.)

Still I wish she were offered more Erdas and Lied von der Erdas I mean Erdes and Klytamnestras and you know I just downloaded some clips of the Verdi outings and they're weird but fascinating. The Azucena, to my surprise, is an unqualified success. Anyway I just don’t know why she’s been singing largely the same tune in the same gold sequins for such a long while. I saw her Orfeo in 2001 and again in 2005. I’d see it again in 2009 if she did it, maybe go every four years instead of the World Cup (which does not interest me, for I have no passion for golf or tennis or polo or whatever it is everyone was screaming about the last few months.) It’s just that she’s not, I’d like the opera world to acknowledge, a one-trick Polack. [Hey, it’s one of those insider words you’re allowed to use if you are one. And when the D’annatos were wandering around the Pale of Settlement dodging cossack bullets like the Jewish peasant James Bonds we doubtless were, some of us settled in Poland. Ewa P is my paisan.]

A brief aside: one doesn't know quite how to feel about the world's bluntest blind item--which I nonetheless didn't get, because I'm like that sometimes--in which La Cieca revealed to us all what is also disclosed over at Vilaine Fille: that Podles will make a very overdue return to the a comprimaria role, essentially. Or so it seems to me, who only ever listens to disc 1 of Gioconda.

High quality colleagues never hurt, even on cult diva abends. Georgia Jarman I'm filing next to Sills, Beverly. Not that she sounds like her so much as I need a category for singers who (not quite in Anna Russell's great artistry/no voice fach) have a sort of ordinary sound but deploy it with not only excellent technique, but flair. I note with Satisfaction that she will be Cinncinati's Madame Mao, a role that sits right where Jarman's voice blooms. I won't try to evaluate her acting from this viewing, though she's awfully pretty for what that's worth. Daniel Mobbs put in another good bid to be the next hot young baritone, though he had less music to work with than two weeks ago.

I'm increasingly excited about City Opera's mounting of La Donna del Lago, in which he will sing alongside Pendatchanska, Banks, and Laura Vlasak Nolen who I am now glad I reserved judgment about in Puritani, because she had a few more notes here than there to show off a nice shimmery instrument. Yeghishe Manucharyan was not entirely my cup of tenor, but I think if I hadn't heard so many incredible tenors in the last year I might feel otherwise. The high notes are shocking, certainly. I just don't find his singing deeply musical, so maybe I'm lying about if I hadn't heard the other tenors. It's hard to get past a pedestrian sensibility about how the notes go together.

A good time was had by all, especially annoying people, who seem to be well represented at Caramoor. Oh, or maybe Podles' fans are just nuts, but I hate to admit it. Cult followings don't tend to be quite who you'd want to hang out with outside the kool-aid tent, now do they?

I'm fresh out of fodder unti the Met fires up its engines, but maybe I'll write about some of these recordings I've bought in moments of financial recklessness...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Tales from the Shed

And why, while I'm on it, is it called The Shed? Isn't the shed where you keep the tractor? Anyway it puts me in mind of the Beverly Hillbillies is all I'm really saying.

So here's Elektra, abridged. This scarcely rises above the level of but I have a nasty headache, so if you can pretend it's hilarious, we'll all get along.

Maids: ZOMG, WTF is w/ Elektra? [Exeunt]
[Text redacted for your aesthetic wellbeing]
Elektra: Thud. [She is teh dead.]

And I suppose it didn't feel too much longer than that with James "Skinny" Levine at the helm on Saturday. It actually stirs up a bit of cognitive dissonance to see him conducting on-book, so under his skin is the score of Elektra. If you'd told me the orchestra that played anemic back-up to La Voigt's Salome on her birthday in 2002 was the same band that was going to produce the raucous, wonderful noise we heard last night, I'd have stood there blinking at you while I hit the panic button under the desk. Credit must be due Levine. This is a changed orchestra, and anyone who doesn't get quite what a conductor does should hear a before/after reel.

On the whole, Levine was no more or less than primus inter pares, joined by the starry lineup of Lisa Gasteen, Felicity Palmer, Christine Brewer, and Alan Held. Brewer and Levine had last worked together, by the way, twenty four hours earlier in a rare mounting of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Although is it really so rare these days? BSO put it on earlier in the year with Mattila and LHL, and I hope to god someone recorded the Wood Dove's scene. In any case, you don't see it every damn day, because the forces are so huge ("Architecture in tone on a vaaahst scale," Toscanini termed it. And by Toscanini I mean Stokowski. Thanks to a reader who pointed out the mistake o' the day.) and the solo bits are a big sing, not simple to cast.

It's perfect for Tanglewood on one hand because The Shed, which seats about 25% more people than the Met (seriously!) is rather vaaahst itself, which lends things the air of a festival of bigness. In practice, though, the piece is tough enough to balance ina more normal acoustic setting. Take away the walls, and it's anybody's ballgame. Exhibit A: Friday's line-up of big voices. Brewer, Botha, Meier. (Klaus Narr was the wonderful, thankfully returned Matthew Polenzani, fresh-voiced as ever, but the orchestration isn't as brutal in his section.) All of them got swallowed up at some point, Botha and Brewer for a hefty portion of the first half of the piece. Both sounded awfully shiny when you could hear them, but the climaxes for voice tend to coincide with orchestral orgasms and so for instance Tove's exit was absolutely overwhelming musically but the stunning soprano ascent to C was all but lost. Meier fared better, lacking only the extra degree of lyricism that the likes of Troyanos brought to likes like, " Weit flog ich, Klage sucht' ich" and she probably got the stompingest ovation.

But back to Elektra, and Brewer. Who was more audible in the Strauss, but unfortunately the poised pretty-ness that worked out so well in the rapturous but never frenzied Gurrelieder made for a somewhat workmanlike Chrysothemis. There was never an instant's fear about how she'd get through the role, and every note had spin and's just that I expect to feel something for the girl when she sings, "Nein, ich bin ein Weib, und will ein Weiberschicksal," beyond a wish that someone put her in touch with Gloria Steinem. I'm thinking nostalgically of that great Elektra in Houston in 1993 where Jo Barstow looked intensely verklempt the whole time--yes, it was said that she didn't know the part when she showed up and was told to learn it pronto or hit the road, but this was acting. I remember how she swayed as she sang some of the high-lying lines...Lisa Gasteen did a bit of stomping around in this unstaged production, and in fact by the end was taking every opportunity she could to chug water from a bottle and mop her forehead, but Brewer never broke a sweat, and that seemed to be the problem. I'd happily go hear her again, but preferably in something like Gurrelieder that doesn't call for too much drama.

Between trips to the corner of the ring, Gasteen won round after round against the scariest role in opera. It's hard for me to figure what she'd be like in a staged Elektra; maybe the vocal acting isn't quite Borkhian, but the goods are there and there was no audible decline over the course of the very short, very long evening. In fairness, we'll never know if she got the role's second C, because the orchestra was at that point deafening, but there are other things in life to worry about. The sound is...plainspoken, I want to say. Headache+adjectives=nevermind. I look forward to her Met Brunnhildes, announced in her bio, which I guess answers the question of who's taking over for Voigt now that she's dropped the role. Something about the solidity of tone made her a convincing sibling for the granite-voiced Alan Held, her partner in crime.

And a convincing rival for the brilliant, intense, adjective, adjective, adjective Felicity Palmer. No qualifications on this one. Palmer moved in to the role, put up drapes and pictures on the wall; made it elegant where it needed to be and batshit loony where that was appropriate. At 62, she cuts no corners, and seems to be enjoying herself greatly in one of Strauss' most diva-ready roles. The all-important hysterical laughter right at the middle of the opera (for a definitive reading of this non-musical line, please see Jean Madeira chez Bohm) was delivered with exactly the right amount of madness, it bears noting.

Toss in a solid set of maids, Jennifer Check doing full justice to the plummy little pre-star turn of #5, and Siegfried Jerusalem making as much as you can of Aegisth and I have no complaints except that I don't own a cute little place in the Berkshires, and that's really nobody's fault but my own.

Next up, do you really want to hear me get all stupid over Podles? Because that's what's going to happen.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Campari and cantilena

JSU stood me a "not good enough for NPR" consolation cocktail Thursday at that "Opera on Tap" thing a few people have posted about. Seemed like good fun, though the back room at Freddy's, a charming Prospect Heights spot that has a date with Ratner's wrecking ball, is uncomfortably hot in the weather we're having. I stuck it out for a little while and caught a spirited run-through of the Count/Suanna duet, a pretty high quality Hamlet aria, and other amusements served up to a crowd of extremely enthusiastic hipsters. (No, I know, hipsters are never enthusiastic--it's in the rule book--but I don't have a term for what hipsters become when they move to Cobble Hill and lighten the fuck up a little.) Catch it later on at Park Slope's wonderful Barbés* and I think some other places. You've got strong fingers; get googling!

*clap for me: I typed a diacritic. As it happens, the wrong diacritic. Life is hard. Ok, hèrè we gò. Barbès.

More soon on Gurrelieder, then Elektra.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Open Source

A note to anyone who may have navigated this way after hearing Radio Open Source: the entry that follows this and preceeds the one I understand they're going to read on air is a return to fluffy, occasionally foul-mouthed opera-blogging of variable quality* after the somber interlude of the loss of LHL. I'm afraid the rest of the blog is rather more like this than my little piece on Lieberson. I don't want anyone to stumble upon this and leave aghast, so I thought I'd give a heads up.

*Seriously. The Puritani review is one of my least favorites, for example. Accident of timing. For a representative sampling of what this blog is about most of the time, caveat lector, check out:

Thanks for stopping by.

ETA: Cutting room floor for me, it seems.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Or as you might translate it: The Republicans

Caramoor, in case you've never been (as I hadn't until last night) is a rather grand estate in Katonah, New York, about an hour from the city. The surrounding country may not be quite as ravishing as that of Glimmerglass, if we are speaking of summer festivals, but the grounds themselves are exquisite. Don't miss the large metal pineapples! No, seriously! It's worth taking a picnic basket, and if you don't, you can benefit from the fact that someone forgot to pass the memo around Katonah way dictating that sandwiches served in the proximity of classical music must indicate by their price that they in fact contain slices of endangered species. I realize this is odd to point out in an opera review, but it made me happy, so there it is.*

Caramoor is also the summer stomping grounds of Will Crutchfield, who likes opera as much as you and I do, apparently. Primary difference being he is capable of causing it to occur. Perhaps you are, too, when you haven't lately made with the Risperdal, but I'm not, so I'm grateful to Mr. Crutchfield. Probably if I could conjure opera, the percentage of bel canto works would be smaller, but as long as we're in the tweedly realm, it's nice to have an expert guide. Something like Puritani falls into the wrong hands, and you have....well...something even worse than I Puritani in the right hands. Don't get me wrong--I love it as a few concert pieces, but Bellini apparently wrote a bunch of music to go in between those concert pieces, and that music came with a story, and that story didn't come with the giant bottle of aspirin that should've accompanied it, and that's that.

The thing you have to keep in mind at Caramoor, by the by, is that people are for whatever reason holding to rather slovenly standards of concert etiquette, and so when for instance the old man beside you actually starts HUMMING along with "Qui la Voce," there's nothing to be done about it but to think of it as a duet. The ushers wander in and out, the birds in the trees bird around noisily which you can't really blame them for...basically what I'm trying to say is you have to put up with a fair amount of distraction. I swear I heard a bunch of people dropping typewriters in the middle of the opera. Ok, they probably weren't typewriters, but what was all that crashing?

I just checked and Alex told you all you need to know about the singing. I'll just corroborate. With the exception of the F in "credeasi misera" which should probably always be left out since nobody can sing it without sounding like he's kidding, Banks was stellar from the get go. I think it's a D he has to hit and hold twice in the duet, and each iteration was lengthy and superb. High notes aside, he sang with remarkable style and energy. Truthily, he is the equal of Florez, it's just that he's kind of cuddly while JDF looks like he's waiting for an opera about a pizza boy who really needs that tip.

Um, is it making me look like a creep to start back in with shtick like that right after the LHL entry? I just don't know quite what else to do. What I write here tends to be a little silly, not to say lunatic, and not always in immaculate taste, and it's not much good trying to tinge that with a sadness still felt but filed separately. So, moving right along...

Sumi Jo sings largely as she always has, in a lot of really good and not so good ways. She still sometimes pulls the vibrato lever halfway through a note, and the very top sounds like an act of will, but did it ever not? It looks like it costs her more to tug the voice around the turns than one imagines it used to, but if you close your eyes and ignore the little dances, it's pretty remarkable what she accomplishes, easy or not. And of course the cloudless timbre of the voice itself, completely untarnished, is nothing to complain about. I do wonder if Crutchfield had anything to say about her ornaments, which were so ungepotchket as to leave you wondering if she'd find her way back to the page. They were a fun, trip, though, so no complaints.

On the bass and bass baritone, I'm basically just nodding along with Alex. Daniel Mobbs was a very happy surprise indeed, real old school stuff despite his apparent youth, and Weston Hurt was something of a cypher, first rate voice and fabulous name notwithstanding. Laura Vlasak Nolen, in the role of The Worst Plot Device Ever, sounded not quite in her element, and I'd rather appraise her promise in something else.

Next up is Tanglewood's well cast Elektra, and I guess I might also subject Gurrelieder to a bit of my typing, too.

*In the interest of full disclosure, my sandwich was also largely subsidized by Wellsung, Inc. Thanks A--I'll hit you back.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


We've lost something irreplaceable, all of us to whom opera means something. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is gone. I'm sorry if I'm not feeling very articulate about it. It's easy now to feel the sting of performances of hers we missed, but instead I'd like to dwell on the one time I did witness the act of will, honesty, and something that looked like humility that was her Didon. If you weren't there (and I don't say this to make the experience more mine) nothing I can say will take you there. If you were, you will remember, I think, the little insecurity at her entrance that grew meaningless as the evening wore on, the plangent tone of voice and impersonation, the haunted way her exit conveyed through some impossible act of expression by her gait and somehow the posture of her back turned to the audience a boundless sadness and resignation. You may even remember, and I think it's not disrespectful, how magnificent she looked in her gown. Alright, I hope you saw her in more things than I did, and have your own reminiscences. She is not, I am wont to add, mine to mourn. She was a person, had friends and favorite places and moods and reasons, and it's a worse day than you or I can know for the people who were really with her. But you and I have lost something, too, and for what it's worth, I'm sorry for the both of us.