Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Butterfly Net

Ladies and Germs, Wellsung is back!

Here's the rest of the round-up, or some of it:

We're going to have to wait for a Parterre pan or paean, as JJ is doing it up for Gay City News, we presume.

JSU is opting for Idomeneo as a season kick-off but sent in a bulletin from Time's Square, as did our correspondent who actually treads the boards, singin'.

Alex Ross presents a few snapshots of the festival atmosphere on the plaza.

If I didn't link you, no slight is meant (well, I mean, with maybe one exception! Now where'd I put that I'm-just-joshin'-ya emoticon: ;) )

Only the fact that I'm moonlighting these days saved me from my suicidal, death-by-sleep-deprivation instinct to go to Gioconda tonight. I'm dying to see it.

Meanwhile I feel a little like weighing in on the Matter of Moppet v. Puppet. I'm pro-puppet, and it's not just because I think children onstage spell the end to any critical reception of a work of theater. [Remember those reports that Maria Ewing dragged her little mentally ill German love-child out with her for a Wozzeck curtain call because nobody can give a child anything but an enthusiastic reception?] I actually remember thinking during Being John Malkovich that I may have the issue with puppets that so many people have with clowns, so I wasn't pre-disposed to like it. In pratice, I think it works, primarily because it's so far removed from what you might imagine, a big floppy doll getting lugged around the stage. Two people work the puppet, so it has a...not exactly a realistic motion, but a subtle and stylized simulacrum. And honestly, it's probably less creepy to see a silent puppet up there than a silent child. Children are almost never silent for extended periods, quite the opposite. This is one reason Maury categorically avoids them.

And as long as I'm doing a kitchen sink entry: the quasi-new Cat Power album is fucking fantastic.

Monday, September 25, 2006


...and by that I mean just yes. Yes, you should go. And this despite many reservations, that in the end don't matter. I'd like to state for the record that I'm not an entirely jaded opera-goer. I love the Met most nights, even if the rep is conservative and they don't have a real Puccini soprano or Heldentenor to their name. But I do maintain that it's only every few or several seasons they have a production that comes from that place of absolute artistic certainty, you know the kind I mean? The last one I saw was Wernicke's Frau Ohne Schatten, until tonight. The latest now is very certainly Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly, consistently dazzling and intermittently devastating.

By the way, you know who can really wear a dress? Lee Radziwill! There she was, smoking her cigarette five feet from me. I mean, I wouldn't know her if she bit me, had to ask a paparazzo who the glamor gal was [embarassingly, but not really, I actually asked "Oh is thatLicia Albanese?" because I don't know what she looks like either and she's d'une certaine age and always at stuff.] But that's who it was, sewed into that thing and looking like a million and a half. Ten feet the other direction was Rufus Wainwright, and for fun I imagined he was utterly peeved that the flashbulbs weren't aimed at him. Everyone else was there too, but you've read about it. Kind of exciting. Very buzzy evening.

You're going to have to go, if you can, and you're going to have to do it despite some of the singing. In fact I may just write about that and not ruin any of the visual surprises, which is fine anyway considering my bumbling way with descriptions of the visual. It's pretty late, anyhow. For now: the colors are ravishing, the design is consistent with what I remember of Michael Levine's striking work in Carsen's Onegin, and the way characters make their entrances is quite enthralling. You'll never see a curtain call like this one again. Christina Gallardo-Domas could have sung a thoroughly mediocre Butterfly and gotten a screaming ovation, the way her curtain call is designed/choreographed.

Which is exactly what happened. Do you remember her Met broadcast debut? Because I do, in that way I remember Woody Allen movies from the late 90's and the last couple seasons of Melrose Place and things like that. They happened, and if I thought about it really hard, I could recall a few details beyond being unimpressed. So the question was: why have they picked her for this phenomenally well-hyped season opener in a new Met regime that's going to stir things up or die trying. I don't have an answer. By "tutu, piccolo, idiot" she had warmed up into a kind of plummy sound, and then she disemboweled herself so there wasn't much time to enjoy it. Up to that point, she was tentative and a bit squally with a tendency to lose support at very key moments. Um, yeah, like the last note of The One Aria Everyone Knows. And I guess we all have our unreasonable demands, and I guess one of mine is the c# in Butterfly's entrance. Not there, neither in the house nor in the video they were showing on the Panoperacon in the plaza with all the rehearsal footage. Anyway it kind of drives like a Puccini voice, but without meaning to be nasty, it really isn't one.

God, you know, Butterfly is kind of an awful opera, well not through and through but such banality next to such sublimity. And of corse the libretto, offensive from pretty much every vantage. Hell, even the culinary--do you know what's in milk punch? Half-and-half and bourbon, among other things. Who the hell drinks that? Then the humming chorus starts and I'm like any other sentimentalist, dabbing at my eye with a handkerchief embroidered with the likeness of Toti dal Monte.

New feature: you can get your Met Titles in German. I checked to see if they'd change Pinkerton to Linkerton but I guess that's dated or something. I think I'm putting off talking about Marcello Giordani because someone whose opinions I respect is a big fan and I just...my ear is tuned to find the basic quality of his voice a little tight and strangled. Ok, not a little. The bulk of it is gratifying, though, and he sings with fervor if not with abandon. I guess I don't have a better Butterfly cast in mind and, perhaps more to the point, I don't run an opera house. I'm not 100% clear on where it lies in terms of weight anyway, the role of Pinkerton. I think of it as spinto but I suppose Pavarooty went around singing it and wasn't it the definitively spinto territory of Don Carlo that he wiped out on? Ver. I think I promised way back when not to indulge in all that fach-alchemy. Next topic.

Dwayne Croft had a mixed night of it, if you ask me. I have been quite the fan at times, but the voice lacks a certain core I'm fairly certain it used to have. He had his moments last night, but nothing like the late 90's when there were equal parts ease and virility. Suzuki must be the role the word "thankless" was coined to describe, but Maria Zifchak made the big success, insofar as any Suzuki can. And since I don't care much for Butterfly itself I'm not going to weigh in on Levine's management of it, though it sounded fine and idiomatic to me. Someone else will know. The joy of being a minor opera blogger is you can defer and delegate.

The real hero, other than Meg Ryan of course, for getting into that little black dress, was Anthony Minghella. I'm not kidding, though: if all I can muster for the singing is this resounding "meh," you have to ask yourself why I'm so certain you'd like the production. I really can't imagine you wouldn't. Without a sassy sign-off, I'm just going to leave it there.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Meanwhile, across the plaza

Give me a medal. All night at NYCO's gala I somehow resisted the wicked temptation to channel Renata Scotto's creepy heckler and cry out "Brava, Metropolitan Opera!" I did.

As JSU has pointed out, it's a little bit of a drag to read a bullet-pointed round-up of these galas, so I'll forego that option and just tell you what you need to know. And the first thing you need to know is that Carol Vaness bears the most uncanny resemblance, in terms of the placement of her speaking voice and her speech cadences, to Shelly Long in the role of Diane Chambers on Cheers. I mean, that's pretty important, right? Also, she seems high.

For some reason it was about 45 minutes sitting in that there State Theater at yon gala for an opera company before anyone sang. There was an overture, and some speeches in which Madame Sills was sort of charming and Paul Kellogg made absolutely no attempt to sound like he was doing anything other than reading off a teleprompter. Which was huge and at the back of the house and you could turn around and see how closely he was sticking to the script. And then there was singing, and it was Carol Vaness and Vinson Cole and for some reason they chose Mozart. I'm sure they're very nice people. No, I kid. It was fine. Just...me, I'd steer clear of Mozart if I'd been singing much heavier stuff for 15 years. I know, I know: I said I like big clunky early music better than wheedly tinny early music. (We're counting the classical period.) But that's about style more than vocal estate.

Shit, it looks like I'm doing a run-down after all. I can never resist. I shall resist. Getting back to the Important Parts: the voices that excited me most were, hmm...James Valenti and Beth Clayton, I think. Valenti is a-fucking-nother young, handsome, very well schooled and promising tenor. He sang the Pearl Fishers duet with a baritone I couldn't hear so much because of stage positions. In twenty years when all these young things want to make some money, if they've kept themselves up, they will have The Ten Tenors concerts or something, in stadia. Seriously, I think we're now fixed for lyric tenors the way we were suddenly flooded with lyric mezzos in the late '90s. Without much effort, I can think of at least 8 I'd be happy to hear any evening or matinee.

Clayton sang in the Rosenkavalier trio/duet (d'you know, I realize we're all supposed to get all mopey about the trio, but I've always liked the duet better) and though she wasn't ideally positioned for me to hear her, I couldn't take my ears off her. I get the impression it's an imperfect voice and that she's the kind of unhomogenized singer that often wields that kind of voice. The kind that doesn't sound mass produced. Certainly she's a very striking figure, and I think she's also openly Sapphic, so hooray for that. If I figure out that I'm mixing her up with someone else, I'll edit like the wind. [ETA: tip of the hat to Gert, who informs me that Ms. Clayton and Patricia Racette are opera's newest love couple. Picture it: a marketing campaign like the Gheorghius got from their record label or like platonic pals/onstage amours Villatrebazonko currently enjoy. Yeah, not gonna happen.]

Vivica Genaux wins the Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Prize for bizarre facial movements during peformance, by the way. Either she's singing with an incredibly loose jaw or she's chewing her coloratura, but it's rivetingly weird to watch. Meanwhile, though, (as predicted) I liked her much better in Rossini than Handel. The Cenerentola rondo was a triumph. One strange details is that from time to time she'd back herself into breathing in the middle of a word, but mostly she sang bellows-in-the-back long phrases. Her ornamentation was way over the top, which is a valid choice.

Lots of jaw-wagging of the usual sort about how New York City Opera invented sliced bread went on. And a few unsubtle jabs at, well, the rest of the world for claiming NYCO-bred singers as their own. And then, like, Carol Vaness would suddenly be on body mic commenting on the greats she remembers singing with, and one couldn't help but notice that the list, well, it went something like this: June Anderson, Jerry Hadley, Rockwell Blake...I dunno, draw your own inferences. I'm being difficult, but I guess the facts as I see them from my somewhat ignorant perspective are: City Opera has had its moments of glory and a real golden age with Treigle and Sills, but let's not get loopy about it.

In keeping with my usual habit, I'm going to interrupt myself in the midst of a basically well-intentioned mocking of Carol Vaness to recall a performance of hers I wholly dug, that being Norma in Houston in the mid '90s (with Mentzer.) I wasn't a rabid bel canto enthsiast but I do remember finding her singing and stage comportment equally worthy of praise.

Oh, at one point they showed a film with Placido Domingo talking about how great City Opera was. It was a film because he couldn't be there that night. Or any other night since the 1960's.

There were also film clips from various productions over the years. The most enticing was Regina Resnik singing "Liaisons" from A Little Night Music. She forgot to read in the decrepit diva handbook where you're supposed to croak this particular song with leathery tone and approximate pitch, finessing the whole thing by virtue of age and attitude. If this exists as a whole, I'd love to see it.

What drove the crowd most vociferously bonkers was also my favorite item: Lauren Flanigan dressed in a rather outrageous get-up singing the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth with such delicious melodrama you'd think she was trying to remind the opera companies of North America of her existence. Listen, on dit that she's not the world's most pleasant colleague, and it seems like it miiiiight have something to do with her long absence from City Opera. Since I don't have to work with her, I wish to say: HIRE HER.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

My Date with Zeus: A Tell-All Memoir

I swear to god there's a review in here somewhere (he said, fumbling around in his prefrontal cortex.)

Why don't we just say this, as far as the production is concerned...We are talking of Semele, by the way, at The Little Company that Usually Could. So here's my grand pronouncement on the remarkaby consistent aesthetic they have going on in their Handel department: I get and am even grateful for the impulse to flood the stage with arresting, kookily lyrical tableaux. I guess I'd just be glad of a little less wink and a lot less nudge. But hang on. I've just stumbled upon a much more intelligible version of what I'm trying to say, so my unwitting guest columnist for the day is "boringwhitegirl" from the peanut gallery at Parterre. She wrote:
...for every one great bit of stage busines...there are 3 or 4 meaningless bits that seem to have no purpose except to distract you from the fact that, no matter what you do, they're going to take that damned da capo again.

Personal to bwg: if you're mortified at being quoted, I'll cease and desist; I just decided I couldn't put it better.

You know, maybe this is just the illusion one has that the first time I saw something was the first time it was done, but I inevitably think back to Francisco Negrin's production of Partenope at Glimmerglass and it seems the whole routine was so much fresher back then: strip the thing of all the columns and overstated garb of antiquity, dress everyone well, dream up some striking, motivated but not obvious stage images, and call it an opera. Long about when the rose petals or whatever-they-weres started pouring through the roof of the bedroom on wheels, I lost my patience. Pretty, but so are a lot of things, and you have to choose which ones you put onstage or it comes apart at the seams, stops being theater.

Rant over, I guess. You'll want to know about the singing, and everyone succeeded on one level or another. Sanford Sylvan most of all, for me, but then I've always been a devoted fan, really from the moment I pulled the car over to dash into a building on the University of Texas campus, having just heard his Ungeduld from Mullerin on KMFA and called them on a pay phone (yes, little Sally, they were phones that stayed in one place and you put quarters in them) to ask who the singer was. His absolute evenness of tone has not left him, nor his aristocratic vocal bearing. I wish he'd sing Chou En Lai in one of these revivals, and I am still kind of kicking myself for missing his Wotan in EOS's scaled down ringlet.

Genaux has gotten heaps of good press in the last five years or so but I'd never heard her in house, just on some baroque album full of marvellously long lines. I'm not sure why I was merely pleased and not blown away...she's not missing much on any checklist, and "Iris, hence away" approached the spectacular. Maybe she just wasn't quite what I thought she was going to be and I had some trouble adjustin. One did hear the name Horne bandied about when people were discussing Genaux, and she's really more about an impeccable baroque line and less about gutsy aural machismo. I like her, no doubt about it. I think I'll like her more later.

Robert Breault I was surprisingly into, considering the voice is rather more Mascagni than Messiah. The deal is lately I'm so not invested in HIP or period performance, whatever the kids are calling it, that unless it's supremely well done, I'd just as soon hear something else entirely. Not for nothing my new favorite Monteverdi Orfeo (as opposed to my old favorite which was none, because I could never get into it much) is the one from La Scala in the 1930's. It's not the most florid part, as Handel goes, and someone like Kurt Streit would be twiddling his vocal cords the whole time. "Wherever you Walk" (with its lyrics that always strike me as funny, calling to mind some frightened soul being followed around by a crowd of tip-toeing Dutch elms) came out downright virile. I'm all for that. I guess it's time to lay my hands on that ridiculous old Hercules where Corelli put on thick soled boots so he'd be taller than Jerome Hines. Or isn't there--no joke--a Poppea with Gwyneth Jones?

I have this hunch they must have cut some/lots of Matthew White's music. My ear is a little out of practice with countertenors, I think. The palette can be a bit more narrow and you listen for other things. But he was certainly capable and stylistically on point. Not such a rich sound as we've gotten spoiled on by Daniels and Mehta, and not wildly inventive with phrasing, but then it's hardly the world's best role.

It's going to be hard for me to be very fair about Futral, honestly. Since Handel is so much not my bread and butter, I must have kind of imprinted hard on the first singer who made Handel sound fascinating to me, and everyone is judged by her likeness to Lisa Saffer. Elizabeth Futral's voice is in the same range of color, but baroque music sounds a bit like vocal tourism for her. A good deal of the music was finely sung, but it lacked that last layer of finish. God knows the breakneck pace of her final aria was a feat, a real accomplishment, but it also involved some fioratorical fudgding, and her high notes pop out of the line a little too much. I'm sorry I missed her Daphne. It just feels so far across the plaza some seasons.

So nu, my shaynkeits and meeskeits, the seasons just about to bust wide open, and I'm going to be honest with you: I'm buying the hype hook, line, and [system failure on sports metaphor.] I'm stoked. And unless James Gandolfini has any objections, I'll be writing about opening night when next I post.

Things I left out and am adding later, lazily not bothering to integrate:
1) Props to Pat Collins on the lighting, but for heaven's sake get a strobe light that doesn't make bug zapper noises if you're going to use one.
2) Um, oh yeah, everyone was dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O and stuff. I guess that's more or less the defining feature of the production. To what can we attribute my complete failure to mention this? Denial, most likely. Everyone looked great, but see above. These directorial ideas that seem great at first, does anyone think them through to the end of the opera? Because Marilyn Monroe, for instance, didn't die because Kennedy came to her in his godly form, or at least I assume not. (I wasn't there.) Really not trying to be picayune, just...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

This is what Christmas Eve is like for goyim, right?

Can't resist joining in the fun of speculating/making wish lists about what they'll release. The central theme of my broadcastlust is Steber--I just took a stroll around the ol' database and she was in quite a lot of broadcasts, and I don't think that many of them are things I've seen even on Naxos or Bensar. Otello in '52 with Vinay and Warren? I'd take that. Wozzeck? Lay it on me.

Out of curiosity I'd love to hear Traubel in The Man Without a Country. It's kind of a stand-in fantasy for The King's Henchmen, which was too early for broadcasts. (Don't ask me why the one subs for the other...American operas that fizzled but featured a big star, I guess. King's Henchmen had Tibbett, and a libretto by Millay, by the way.)

There's some Thill including a partial Faust with Rethberg, and a Boris G that's probably not in Russian despite the presence of Kipnis--it's 1943 after all. And that one has Thorborg.

And of course there are some things with pet singers of mine, El Amor Brujo among other things with Jean Madeira, at least a couple of 'casts with John Alexander (unless it's another Alexander)and so on and so forth.

Met Maniac's Lost Broadcasts page features some partially extant broadcasts that are the stuff of dreams, some largely irretrievable Leider and Melchoir, zum Beispiel.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

In which the vaults are opened

Yegods. Read the Times. Trust me, you'll know which article. I feel quite faint.

Later edit, under the rubric of "Maury's really good at finding the dark cloud behind the silver lining": I have to admit it's been fun having to hunt for Met broadcast recordings. And maybe am a tiny bit preemptively nostalgic about the days (i.e. now) when it's a big deal that I have some of the stuff I do. I remember finding the Corelli/Farrell Gioconda at the used record store in Denton, Texas and feeling like I'd really scored. I drove back to Dallas with the adrenaline rush of transporting contraband. (Had to be the opera. Dallas does not so much provoke reactions of happiness, and I say this as a loyal Texan, loyal despite everything.) So while I'm delirious with joy thinking about some of the 40's and 50's bounty perhaps soon to be grasped like low-hanging fruit, I'm also...well, I don't want to sound like one of those old school homosexuals who's nostalgic for the days when you had to know where the bars were, but yeah, I'll miss the hunt a little.

Monday, September 04, 2006

I think we're all getting a little tired of these.

You'll have read elsewhere by now that Astrid Varnay has died at age 88. A singer I was just discovering, oddly, but a name the people who taught me opera always invoked with great respect. Someone else with solid cred calls her memoirs "one of the few modern singer's bios worth reading." I do think I'll read them. Varnay was the sort of go-for-broke singer whose vocalism is an athletic act; on most lists, one of the great Wagneriennes of the last century though the last of her performances I listened to (with the Wellsungs) was an Elektra. The role was on its way out of her voice but through towering self-assurance and a primal sense for all the triumph and tragedy of Sophocles and Hoffmansthal, she pulled it off. Now can we please take a long break from this funeral procession of vocal eminences?