Thursday, March 29, 2007


For reasons not much worth going into, I can only tell you about Act II of last night's Traviata in much detail. But that works out because Krasimira Stoyanova seems to be an Act II Violetta. (Yeah, it's a stupid category in a way, but also a useful shorthand.) Good in Act I as well, to judge from List Hall, and I'm betting in Act III, but things like "Dite alla giovine" do show off the wonderfully weepy quality of the voice particularly well, and the big Act I scen-o-rama was impressive, not dazzling.

Honestly, my guess about Stoyanova is she's a very high quality singer who is not going to have a major Met career. I'm not sure quite why I say that. A soprano I once knew glumly told the joke once that goes "What do you call a lyric soprano with a pager?" The distinctly non-hilarious punchline, of course: an optimist. No matter how good Stoyanova is, I guess, she's still a middle-of-the-road Italian lyric, and unfortunately she coexists with some names that are hard to dislodge from the marquee, no matter their comparative merits as judged by you or me or someone's Aunt Edith.

The rumor is out there that Kaufman is the Met's next Siegmund, right? Put me down for a seat at that. (Preferably sitting right behind him with some clippers, so I can rid him of that awful mane while I listen, but I guess that's his business.) I'd actually sort of rather hear someone like Polenzani, preferably Polenzani himself, sing Alfredo, but at the same time I'm not complaining about JK. The C in the cabaletta was strangly like last time around, but life goes on. The rest was refreshingly substantial and sung with guts. Someone who was there in the Annoying Golden Age Against Which All is Compared, can you tell me if there's some reminiscence of Corelli there, and then stop talking rather than tell me how much better Tebaldi was than everyone because that's the next track on that record? Because notes here and there reminded me of recordings of Corelli, the tenor who most makes me wish I were twenty years older. Kaufman may grow into something fantastic. For now he's just Really Good. I'm enjoying daydreaming about some breakthrough with his teacher, if he still has one, where he finds a searing D-flat. And then we all go mad with joy, and I can't blog anymore because I'm in the mad-with-joy asylum, I guess.

I don't know quite what to think about Dwayne Croft lately. Once upon a time, more specifically I'd say the late 90's, he was kind of my favorite. It's aged into an impressive places. But there's a lot of shifting of gears that goes on. I'm not even sure what I'm hearing, but most every note changes color right after it starts. I think maybe he's futzing with his vowels a lot. Anyone? Am I making this up?* Just the same, his second entrance, after Violetta leaves, reminded me that Traviata can still make me scrunch my eyes real tight, which is (believe it or not) as close to crying at the opera as I pretty much ever come.

Next up: The Auditions!

*Nick von Trrill, are you reading? You always have words for what's going on with this kind of thing...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

By popular demand...

I have the pleasure of presenting The Straussmonster. I mean, who better to blog Helena? She knows more about Strauss than you or I do, but she'd never point that out. And here's what she has to say:


So, let me start this with a disclaimer. As one can probably tell from my nom de guerre, I'm not an impartial observer when it comes to Strauss operas. I remember the announcement a few years ago that the Met would be doing Helena, and how excited I was to finally get to see this rare, peculiar, and undeniably problematic beast.

Also, unlike many readers out there in the opera blogosphere, I don't get to go to the opera nearly so often (I envy those of you with four Helenas, you bastards), since it's a long commute and a late, late night, but this has its advantages. The most important of these is that I'm not jaded, probably even naive, and I set out to enjoy anything and everything. I'm an ecumenical opera lover--I'll go see anything at least once.

Up in the upper deck, one row from the top, last night. It does have its advantages--there's a seekrit ladies' room at the very top of the Met. And the regulars up at the top have long memories; they were chuckling over the Zambello Lucia last night. (Make a failure like that and *everyone* will remember it, and poor June Anderson refusing to climb down the stairs in rehearsal.) This Helena is hardly a failure, but hardly a top-shelf production either.

It does have its good points. Some aspects of the bright color scheme were very appealing, especially the slinky bright blue dress for Helena. And I have no major problems with stripping down the excesses of the libretto (it's the Met, kids: we only get horses for Aida) and going with something more spare. But so much of it didn't work because it just made no sense. I suppose the black of the first act and white of the second are meant to evoke the retread of the issues (Menelas is still crazy), but it just...ugh. The red arrows for the battle scene were ridiculous. All scenes handling the chorus were done badly. [ed.: oh, my god, the arrows.]

The elves reminded me of Jem. That is not a good thing.

Voigt looked good in that dress. This was the first time I'd seen her post-operation, and she does look great. Even more than that, she obviously loves this role and throws herself into it. I'd seen her a few times before (Sieglinde in Chicago, long ago; Met Ariadne, Met Kaiserin, which I remember being somewhat disappointed in), and memory is a fickle beast but I do think her voice has changed. Less creamy and smooth, a certain sharp edge to it in places, but something about those high notes...mmm.

Menelas. Oh, Menelas. As Maury said, it's unsingable, and as such I'm willing to give a lot of leeway in this role. It doesn't need the sheer beauty of voice that der Kaiser suffers without, although it would be nice. Where Kerl was lacking most to my ears, besides sheer audibility in places, was in those places where the role snaps a hard right over into the full-blown lyric and the lines become long and elegant. Those are, I might add, some of the most musically amazing patches in the score--check out near the end of Act II, such as that cruel high entrance on "Helena!" (A side musical note: the ending trio is the musical culmination of the opera, the rest is just epilogue; it weaves together music from all other places and finally expands and completes earlier musical ideas. It's also in the Straussian key of the sublime, D-flat major.)

Diana Damrau, who was an entertaining Zerbinetta last year but there subscribed to a 'more is more' philosophy about the role, toned it down a bit and brought the comedy to the forefront. Comedy? Helena is a generic mess, which is one of the major problems with staging the work. You have an Omniscient Seashell, elves, murder, shell shock, tragedy, bickering, all thrown together. Many times last night I sincerely felt for the audience who may have read the synopsis, but hadn't sat down with the libretto beforehand. To be kind, it's dense. But it's also marvelous German and incredibly literary--all you have to do is read the libretto of one of the later Strauss/Gregor operas to weep for what could have been.

Most opera fans have a list of things that they never want to see done again, conceptually. Among mine are: anything involving Nazis, insane asylums, or operas being staged as if a dream of one of the characters. But that last might actually work here, since despite the title, the opera is really about Menelas, not Helen. She gets the bulk of the musical glamor, but it's all about his psyche. I can imagine a production which plays up that interpretation of the work and then uses aspects like lighting to mirror his states of mind and how he perceives the world around him. Any further ideas on that?

Fielding's decision that the opera was really about Aithra just...doesn't work. Damrau is a sport for sleeping through the first half of Act II, but it makes her entrance a little more huh-inducing than usual. Likewise with the decision to bring Poseidon on stage at the end, looking, as one person I talked to said, "like a teenager in a zoot suit". Aithra is the agent of the Baroque deus ex machina at the end of the opera, but the essence of the internal drama is when Helen sucks it up and tells her "No more forgetting, no more fake attempts at bliss--I'll make him remember." Come to think of it, that's really the most proactive thing that Helen does in the entire opera, and isn't it very like Hofmannsthal to load so much onto one little action?

The directorial dumbshow/stage drama/whatever did remarkably little to illuminate any of that, despite his best heavy-handed efforts. The bald and red-painted Ghost of Paris reminded me of nothing so much as Steve, the bouncer from the Jerry Springer Show. Ooh, look! It's a big sword on stage! But why are people carrying it around?

Although it's a concept that has come in for its fair share of scorn (one that comes to mind is Pierre Boulez talking about the Chereau production of Lulu), fundamental to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's operatic aesthetic is the unity of music, text, and stage action. Boulez was scornful of the idea that music and stage action match together, referring to it as redundant. Hofmannsthal and Strauss, much wiser (I think), realizes that although they might be 'saying the same thing', action and music work in different ways and form a whole greater than the part. This is what the pantomimes failed to achieve. They just didn't mean anything in and of themselves, and they didn't help illuminate the musical structure.

And while I 'get' the idea of the man with the briefcase and the sword (ancient and modern archetypes mixed together, which was Hofmannsthal's idea with the libretto), it didn't work. I didn't know what the hell was going on with the Seashell and her male partner at almost any time, but especially in the whiteface of Act II. I feel for the singers/actors who had to have that much makeup put on. Would totally wear the black tux for a Halloween outfit, unless someone can get me a good Valkyrie costume.

I loved Fabio Luisi's conducting of Boccanegra and he did a steady job with this deceptively thick score. If you go and look at it, it's massive--but it's in many ways closer to a chamber opera in actual texture. There were a few places (I'd have to go back and pick them up on a broadcast, but I could) where tempi seemed a little fast, to the point that the line and cohesion with the singers suffered, but I'm nitpicking against my mental image of this score. I'd also have to check, but I think Voigt fell into the trap almost everyone else does, and screwed up the phrasing for that crazy last phrase of Zweite Brautnacht. It's marked in the score, people--but it's also written so as to encourage trainwrecks. The C# was there, I'm not complaining.

So despite all the nitpicking here, go and see the opera. I found it very moving, especially near the end, where the direction recedes for a moment (before the ridiculous ending) and the performances and music and emotions manage to conquer. I've been singing Menelas' music all day.

...and the less said about the cruise ship ending or the TEMPLE IN SPAAAAACE! drop curtains, the better.


What could I possibly add?

Next up on my agenda: Traviata Bulgariana, unless I decide instead to opt for the novelty of a full night's sleep.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Second Chances

I get the feeling Hugo von Hoffmansthal was encouraged by his successes to try a good thing twice. And fuck it up irredeemably. This notion comes not from any in depth knowledge of his oeuvre, but just a conversation at intermission: could anything be a more disappointing rehash of the presentation of the Silver Rose than the presentation of the, uh, beverage in Arabella? (Let's do a production set in Kindergarten with everyone dressed in pajamas where she hands him a sippy cup of grape juice. That would be more disappointing.) And in revisiting the crazy Love & Death metaphysics of Ariadne, could he have possibly gotten it more bewilderingly wrong than Die Agyptische Helena?

Yeah, I went back for seconds at the seafood buffet. And though I noticed each infuriatingly ostentatious eccentricity of the production just as much as last time, or more, I enjoyed the whole package more, I think. Sometimes, and I hate to shatter your sterling conception of critics and bloggers and such here as warriors for truth, some great degree of one's reaction to a night of singing or anything else is mostly just about the day you had, isn't it?

Like what was I slagging so hard on the role of Menelaus for? It's not genius like Bacchus, but it's not without its share of opportunities for vocal glory. Torsen Kerl met them admirably, especially in the second act. There's one cry of "Helena" that starts in some cruel octave, unaccompanied, and at first it sounded like he might totally blow it, but it came out clarion and terrifically long-breathed.

Also how did I not notice last time that Aithra is really a pretty great role? I recall well my irritation at discovering her lilting first utterance translates to "Dinner's ready!" And there's lots more where that came from (lilting utterances, not dinner) and Damrau is objectively wonderful and I'm not sure why I'm having a hard time committing to unreserved enthusiasm in her direction. I think JSU has categorized her, with Trebolina, as proficient but in some way heartless. I'll look it up. Yep, he praises her acting but says her singing in Ariadne "lack[ed] even a drop of tenderness." To some extent I see his point. There's something missing, maybe vulnerability. But there's plenty of recompense. Next time, I will love her. It seems like the right thing to do.

Voigt was announced as indisposed, and indeed act I was tentative, the big exposed high note dodged, and I wondered if she would cancel at halftime rather than face "Zweite Brautnacht." She didn't, and she nailed it. Nailed it, nailed it, nailed it. Better, in fact, than opening night. Didn't elide the little drop before the C#. The top is now just very bright instead of (forgive me a food metaphor. You know I hate them) buttery like the middle, and like the top used to be, but it will be of service in some of her new roles, I think. I went back and listened to the disc of Wagner duets with Domingo to make sure I'm not painting the past rosy, and yeah, it's nostalgic to hear how the richness used to go all the way up. What is there to say? Things change. She's still a star.

I didn't mean to give this a full second gab, but there it is. Next up: Violetta Bulgariana

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Lady in What Lake?

I'm sort of wondering, having cut and pasted that headline from the review I'm about to quote you, whether the production in Minnesota with La Podles had some kind of "Land of 1000 Lakes" tie-in. That would be funny, but not very, which is how midwestern humor goes.

You know, gentle reader, once in a while I post a review that feels completely uninformative and maybe without much of a point of view. But the great thing here at My Favorite Intermissions is that even if I don't have anything to say, sometimes I know someone who does. A local correspondent has this to say about last night's NYCO prima. Put on your sunscreen--it's blistering.

I can't remember when I last saw such an UGLY production. Boy, was it ugly. Not even the Met's gloomy Vespri can top this monstrosity.

And it was confusing as hell. I know we saw Barry Banks before we saw that new (?) tenor McPherson, whose voice was seriously strange, and I thought for the rest of Act One that McPherson was Banks, and I couldn't for the life of me understand what had happened to his voice. Their attires were so similar that they could easily be exchanged, and if one doesn't know the opera (who does?), confusion easily reigns. I was relieved, at intermission, to see in the program that there were actually two guys, not one, though I can't say Banks did himself a service in this production.

Back to the ugly. I know NYCO is on a right budget, but usually they have splendid costumes, even with very minimal and cheap looking sets. [Note from Maury: Dolly always said "It costs a lot to look this cheap."]

Now, this production came from Minnesota, so perhaps one should excuse NYCO, but did anyone, ANYONE, at NYCO ever actually LOOK at this production in Minnesota and LIKE it? Hard to believe. It was the dreariest, ugliest, and stupidest set I can remember seeing. Ever. And do you really think that the Scottish warrior would stand three rifles up to make them look like the skeletons of teepees? Yes, the production
came from Minnesota, but I'm sure there are people there who know that Scots and Native Americans aren't the same ;-)

Dining room chairs in the middle of a battle field? Or did the chorus just happen to forget to remove the last three?

Back to the costumes. The men's boots were widefooted, diligently shined black leather. Sure, that's what they wore in old Scotland, right? And Elena's confidante was stalking around in the battle field in high heels!

And those golden yellow dresses on the courtier ladies were singularly unattractive, badly tailored, seriously bad looking on most of those ladies. And does Elena really know them all --- she goes around at the end shaking the hands of every one of them as if they were old friends. How many years had it been since her dad was ousted? Does she really still know all those court people? I suppose it's to give her something to do while she's not singing?

Of course, one has to consider what the performers are given to do. That starts with a silly and at times laughable plot. At the showdown, well, almost, between the two suitors, I was sitting there rooting for Malcolm to join them. Having three suitors battle it out would have made it more fun than with two, right? And why not? It's dumb enough already. Actually, there were many titters among the audience near me, and a bit of head shaking.

Generally speaking, the acting was hammy and "blocky" --- sheesh.

Well, yes, there was some good singing, particularly from "Malcolm" --- who looked very much like Maria Zifchak, but of course wasn't her.

Oh, and I'm being kind ;-)

Aren't we glad we went? Well, I always go to things I don't know. Sometimes one gets lucky. This wasn't one of them.


Thanks, Local Correspondent!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

La Donna del Lager

The title of this post doesn't mean anything. I just couldn't come up with anything witty, because my brain is just a little bit still in the clutches of boredom.

Yessiree Bob, La Donna del Lago is a snoozefest. No way around that one. You could lop off the whole first act except for "Mura felici" and nobody would care except Phillip Gossett, and you might be able to distract him by waving around a telephone book and claiming it was a recently discovered manuscript of Il Signor Bruschino. (This paragraph is dedicated to the Straussmonster.)

Still, you'd have to leave Mura felici or...I'm not going to finish that thought just yet.

You know what, I have this perverse notion about things that I'd nine times rather hear a good soprano than a good mezzo, because we're drowning in mezzos, or we were for a while. I can't think of any mezzo or contralto roles that I sit around dreaming I could hear sung as I imagine they should be sung. This is clearly not so for soprano roles. I despair of hearing a truly great Elektra or Brunnhilde or even Butterfly. I mean, not really despair, I just like that usage "despair of." I'm more like skeptical, if you want to know.

Anyway I'm making an exception to this jaded pose of opera-queen weariness, because Laura Vlasak Nolen is, I shit you not, exciting. She's not a booming contralto and I don't know if she'd be a good, like, Rosina, but she is a top notch mezzo, no two ways about it. Florid technique: check. Solidity: check. Basic luxury of tone: check. Ability to sink into the role: check. If she'd pay my rent, she'd be everything I'm looking for. I engaged in that useless habit of trying to think whose voice her reminded me of, and I'm not going to tell you because you'll think I'm on crack, but it made me wonder if she'd be good in Mahler.

The rest was good but less fully satisfying. Alexandrina Pendatchanska, whose singing I have admired in these pages, was epicly, unconscionably miscast as Elena, whose two settings are Worried and Jubilant. I can still hear in my head the clips La Cieca posted once upon a time of her blazing Ermione and I just don't understand how this happened. It wasn't bad, per se, but it was certainly disappointing. Still, she's got a voice on her, and her fioratura is clean and not stingy with the little notes. She's also really interesting looking, like a cross between Helena Bonham Carter and Ellen from first grade, who you don't know. Actually if you do, tell her hi; I'm totally curious what happened to her.

Barry Banks deserves a better role than Uberto or Rodrigo or whoever the hell he sang (spoiler alert: he turns out to be the king, too!) because, while he can pack in every little turn and run, it's not all that fun to listen to, nor would it be with anyone else singing, including the guy singing Rossini across the plaza.

The production team received a baffled reception, it seemed to me, and I can't argue. I actually get a little nervous lately with the occasional link from places like Parterre that someone other than my mom might read this, and it gives me an iffy feeling about slagging on stuff, but suffice it to say I have no idea what they were going for beyond that generalized City Opera aesthetic where you put brick walls in the countryside and then bathe the last scene in yellow light and put everyone in ball gowns. I mean, that's actually what they did, but if you thought really hard, couldn't you name about seven other NCYO productions where they do pretty much that? My only really emphatic complaint is, guys, can't you find quieter snow? That there Scottish snowfall is, like, deafening.

Up next: Chenier, maybe? Or a Stoyanova Traviata.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Is anyone recording this?

I haven't mastered the art of recording off Sirius without instantly filling my entire hard drive. Is anyone recording Helena tonight? Because to compare this to Jones/Kastu makes the brain break. As one of my vast network of spies typed over email:
I listened to the broadcast on Thursday and it really didn't occur to me that Torston Kerl was having difficulties, and I guess that's what learning music from Matti Kastu's performance of it will do to your ears.

Umsoyeah. I want a CD of this.

p.s. it turns out what's next is La Donna del Lago. La Donna Martin del Lago, starring Tori Spelling. I jest.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

1 Down; 999 to Go

Aright, next time I tell you I'm going to walk through Penn Station to avoid a block of rain, remind me that on Thursday nights, it is a portal that transports drunk people back to New Jersey.

Well so there we all were at an opera the Met hadn't done in some seventy years and if someone was sitting next to you and sitting on his hands in a most non-metaphorical manner when the production team came out, that was me. I don't boo, as you may know, not audibly anyway, and so while it was fun to listen to everyone else do it, all I could do was pause from my rapturous applause for the musicians to observe a moment of dour silence at the folks who brought you the Met's first bona fide disaster of the season, production-wise. Well, hang on though, let me spare the lighting designer, to some extent. Three words of praise: pretty color palate.

I should save that shit for the end where you can skip it, though, right? You don't want to hear about the piteous, dinner theater of the damned cheapness or the idea-less flailing about that made visual von Hoffmansthal's most wretched
moment of excess, I think. Or the Julie-Taymor-reject elves? If you saw the mock-ups in the lobby, add some stupid, multiply the whole thing by forty, and don't forget the commutative property that means it's not only bigger but stupider. (Commutative? Been a while. As evidenced by my original subject line, which seemed to imply that a thousand minus one is 9,999.)

I trust we'd all rather talk about...well say, there's a nice line here and there in the libretto, and one of them is where Mothra tells Helen, "I have only restored your splendour." And after hearing Voigt take perfectly acceptable stabs at Italian rep for the last year, it was a fine thing that someone restored her splendor. I mean, she did. No, the top is not the same shiny thing it used to be, but neither is the statue of liberty and we still like her.* I think this was a promise of a great Isolde we heard tonight, maybe. The aria was pure, poised grandeur. And for what it's worth, her profile has taken on a 40's film star glamor of late, and seafoam green does her plenty of favors. Dear Peter Gelb, please give half the Salomes to Mattila and the other half to the girl who done launched them boats.

Which is hard work, by the way, launching is, and you need a strong and shouty partner. Enter Torsten Kerl. Exit Torsten Kerl. Pursued by door hitting him on the way out. Oh, I don't mean to be a jerk. He had a serious case of indisposed, and its friend inaudible. I'm told he was cracking as well but I honestly couldn't hear. Maybe it's a good thing when your indisposition is practically on mute. The role, as we all know, is unsingable, and so unsing it he did. It's possible he's ordinarily really good. It's also possible he's not even close to as good as [Someone help me out with a name here...o trusty allewissende backstage source, speak in my aid through text message!] Michael Hendrick, his cover, who came on halfway through after a well-received curtainside announcement and bought the joint, put his name above the door. I would very enthusiastically hear more of him, preferably in something less headache-inducing. The thing is, all those Strauss tenor roles are fucking mean, but in this one there's no real compensation...the character also makes no sense and doesn't have especially beautiful lines like say Bacchus. It's just loud loud loud and then the last ten minutes, I take it back, are nice. But Mr. Hendrick sang securely and without the buzz-saw tone tenors must sometimes resort to in order to be heard over the din. I'm very curious to hear other reactions to him. I was impressed, not less by the apparent calm with which he stepped into the role.

Diana Damrau was in an interesting position in that she gets some of the nicest vocal lines, but they're kind of tossed around the score like tinsel. She continues to produce the most startlingly sure-corded noise, especially up top. I have an idea that her acting may be a little bit more-is-more, but she's game and awfully purdy and the singing is beyond reproach. Well come on now, you know when I use a phrase like beyond reproach I'm setting up for some picky-picky, which is in this case I wonder a little about her talent for legato (no, really, at the end of Act I there are these pretty little phrases that, while I'm mostly happy to banish the recording from my cranial victrola, Barbara Hendricks pours out like maple syrup.)

Jill Grove as the savvy seafood (gods how we were hoping the society matrons would continue the tradition from opening night of themed wardrobing, trading in their kimonos this time to dress as their favorite fruits de mer. Hey, isn't that Mercedes Bass over there got up as a giant lobster roll?) didn't knock me off my block the way she did as Erda in Chicago back when, but then it must be acknowledged that The Super Smart Scampi is just Not a Very Good Role. Only a certain Polish plate of lox could save it, I fear.

Garrett Sorenson piqued my ear as, what, Da-ud? I'm thinking he was in the auditions one of the last two years, is that right? Speaking of which, those are coming up, hurrah!

I don't know that I have that much more to say about the, what do you call something like this, the mise-pres-de-la-scene, but I will quote something hilarious that Jonathan von Wellsung was overheard to say at intermission, and then if he blogs it I'll look kind of silly: certain elements of the production do indeed appear to be borrowed from the Topeka planetarium. I guess for my money the libretto is already so Beyond the Valley of Frau Ohne Schatten incomprehensible that it doesn't need another layer of WTF. And for god's sake, if you're going to float La Voigt onstage for a grand entrance on an Ikea bed (the $99 model, no less), don't make her invisible to half the house when the music announces her. That's not a questionable choice; it's a plain old mistake. Big red X.

Listen, I meant to write about Die Meistersinger, to which I was so kindly taken by one of my very favorite opera mavens, but it was (shameful to admit) my first time hearing almost all 73 hours of that music, and I'd be blogging in the dark. In twenty five words or less, Botha must sing only German music, but lots of it, and Polenzani must sing only on nights when I can go hear him. I want a season-Polenzani pass.

Next up: well, the auditions, but surely there's something before that.

*though hopefully not in that creepy, fetishy, freedom-isn't-free way I used to hear people slathering on their grandchildren on the subway at Smith/9th where you get a momentary viewing

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Stream of Consciousness

Things I learned about Cathy Berberian just now, all of which may be false because the internet is, um, the internet:

1) She recorded not just the three Beatles arrangements available on cd's (Yesterday, Michele, and my favorite, Ticket to Ride done as a sort of 24 Italian Art Songs number) but in fact 12 Beatles songs. I'm dying to know which others. Back to teh intarwebz with me.

2) She has an official website even though she's been dead for over twenty years. It has a "news" section.

3) Best of all: the day she died, she was scheduled to sing The Internationale on Italian tv for some kind of Karl Marx centennial. She planned to sing it in the style of Marilyn Monroe.

I think she popped into my head because I ran across her cd while trying to find Patti/Melba (I always confuse them and always forget which it is) singing Home, Sweet Home to play upon moving into a new apartment, as one does. I could find neither Patti nor Melba, and so played Madame Ponselle. A lovely rendition also, though without quite that deep nostalgia of the almost lost sonic past that the version I usually play has.

Continuing in this vein of loose association, Madame Ponselle also sings a song I believe is entitled "Little Alabama Coon." I'm guessing that one's not on as many compilations these days. It's fun to imagine what the lyrics might be, and then to imagine her singing them. In blackface.

Oh dear. I just looked up the lyrics. Blackface would rank about fifth among the offensive things going on in that rendition. I wonder maybe if Cathy Berberian could have made something exquisitely sarcastic and hilarious of the whole thing. She could have done a whole program of now mortifying Stephen Foster songs or something. (The state song where I grew up is by Stephen Foster and has at least two lines that have been changed so fourth graders forced to sing it won't immediately become hysterical with laughter and there will be no race riots.) It's really a shame she's dead for so many reasons.

On the topic of the fallibility (???) of the internet, by the way, there was a horrible temptation, upon discovering that Ewa Podles has a rather sparse Wikipedia page, to update said page with perfectly factual information along the lines of:

Madame Podles is universally acknowledged to be the greatest singer in the history of sound.

Kids, you can't democratize knowledge. It's just not a good idea.

Friday, March 02, 2007

I liked it so much I fixed the line breaks

Look what a treat you're in for: a guest blogger who doesn't share my basic ignorance of almost everything!

He Who Blogs from the Left Coast has saved me from blogging about...I don't even know at this point, blogging about the guy down the other end of the office singing a Sinatra tune as he filled his bottle at the water cooler. (He was fine. Which is to say: I wasn't really listening but he's kind of handsome.)

HWBFTLC has this to say:

Okay, Mr. D'Annato, I don't have to tell you how much I respect John Adams as a composer. I mean, who else writing operas right now has such a recognizable voice, such a combination of sonic complexity and emotional directness? Such a marriage of grand gesture and tiny detail? And the music of A Flowering Tree is filled with both sublime gestures and beautiful, intricate detail. Like the tree itself, depicted by a maze of sparkling string harmonics. Or a passage in which the three percussionists all played shakers or maracas of various sizes, layering their rhythms on top of one another like a dance heard from a distance. Or the contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and trombones playing closely interlocking parts like the calls of enormous bullfrogs. Or the end of the second act, simultaneously overwhelming in it sheer force, and disarmingly understated in its refusal to dwell on the climax achieved.

So that's the good news. The bad news is that the libretto is so wretchedly awful that almost every time I started to pay attention to the works, I wasn't able to think about the music at all. The problem begin at a fundamental level: maybe you've notices that one of the things that opera does really well is let characters express their internal emotions in periods of song-like reflection. We call these arias. They tend to be parts we go back to listen to. On the othe hand opera is really bad at prose narration (unless maybe if it's Wagner and probably not even then). Those are the parts we tend to skip over. So surely, at some point in the process of conceiving, writing, composing and revising this opera, someone could have said: maybe it's not the brightest idea to write an opera that is two and a half hours of almost uninterrupted parlando recitative narration...

And then there's the words themselves. Again someone must have noticed that some of the lines were... odd? Cliché? Hoaky? Unsingable? "My arms had the grace of the bamboo..." "[He was] like an elephant, after eating certain leaves..." "She massaged her chest with the stump where her arm had been..." STUMP?! I wanted to reach out to the supertitles with gigantic red pen and edit. More specifically, the libretto needed to find a tone and then stick to it. One moment we hear, "Was this the bliss I wed you for?" and the next minute, "She tried, but she couldn't, she couldn't..." (And in addition to the jarring tone, the would "couldn't" sounds really dumb when sung operatically/.)

Here's a more elaborate example: in one of the very few actual aria-type moment, when the two lovers express their sadness at being apart, the Prince sings

Four parts of the day I grieve for you
Four parts of the night I'm mad for you

How many different ways is this bad libretto writing? First, I have no idea what it means. Four parts... out of four? Out of twelve? What? Second, you may be surprised to find that when sung, the line sound a lot like, "For parts of the day I grieve..." Which is amusingly insulting. Thirdly, it's telling, not showing. My fifth-grade creating writing teacher told me that was a bad idea, for some reason. AND, grieving and madness aren't exactly the day/night opposition the lines seem to require. AND it's just plain hackneyed.

Hey! I wonder if I could write some better lines?

From dusk to dawn my eyes are red with weeping;
From dawn to dusk my hoarse throat cries your name.

I just came up with that off the top of my head just now. It's not even very good, and still sort of cliché. But it is better, right?

Have you already guessed that Peter Sellars wrote the libretto? Well, technically the libretto is credited to Peter Sellars and John Adams. Why is Adams so devoted to that horrible little man? What does Adams think that Sellars can provide? Has he not noticed that for the past two decades all of the worse aspects of his pieces are Sellars's fault? Okay that's a bit of an overstatement, but still... Mr Adams, get some new collaborators! HIRE A FUCKING POET.

Sigh. There was some singing too... You know how sometimes plays a game called "Who you wanted, who you got," where they guess who filmmakers originally had in mind for a particular role? ("Harrison Ford isn't available? How about Dennis Quaid?") Well... Did you want Dawn Upshaw? Perhaps we can interest you in Jessica Rivera? This sounds like an insult, and it shouldn't. She's a good singer. She has a piercing top, and interesting diction. She just sounds a lot like Dawn Upshaw, is all I'm saying. The bass Eric Owens sang and sang and sang his wordy talky chatty narration, giving me nothing I feel like I can actually judge his voice with. Russell Thomas was fine. Good, even.

Oh I give up. There was a great big standing O at the end, which just made me sadder. Did I mention that the orchestral music was terrific?

Fucking Peter Sellars...