Friday, September 28, 2007

Backlash much, Heather?

I'm perplexed but also kind of amused to see that the rumblings of interest in promising but, yes, largely unproven new talent Stephen Costello have been met with the perhaps inevitable equal-and-opposite: comments sections on a blog near you are likely to contain some seed of a nascent backlash. Sic transit!

If it's worth justifying, I don't think anyone's enthusiasm is solely founded exclusively on his showing in Arturo's brief utterances, though he really did sound swell. Uh, especially in contrast, I'm afraid, to the more toughened up sound of the evening's leading gent, who needs to be singing Dick Johnson (or, I dunno, Ennis in Der Rucke-gebrechte Berg.) Nor is it based entirely on his "still pretending to shave with a plastic razor" boyish visage.

Where this is actually coming from: Costello's manager, Neil Funkhouser, seems to have made the smart, au courant decision agents are surely going to be making more and more: he put his singer on Youtube. It's from a school performance, so I can embed it here with no worries, I think.

So, in fact, a lot of us went in with high expectations--because seriously, just click on "play" up there--and, above all else, the question: how will it sound in The Barn? Is it a guarantee he's headed for the big time? Not at all. But if you're still wondering, with a sour look upon your face, what the fuss is about after a small-role debut, I say: you hatin'.


On a fortunately unrelated note, I believe you may have one more chance tomorrow to see Trevor Nunn's production of The Seagull which I will without particular reservation declare wrong, wrong, wrong from start to finish. Yeah, this is sort of season-related since isn't he doing the Peter Grimes later on? I'm hoping he'll harken back to his days as director of Starlight Express for that one and maybe put everyone on skates. They could do some kind of marketing tie-in with Xanadu, nu? Anyway Nunn's vision of Chekhov's play seems to be that every last character is the aesthetic equivalent of a pounding hangover, and as a result the play is extremely tiring. Sneaking a little humanity into three and half hours of tiresome sniveling is Monica Dolan as Masha. The thing about Chekhov characters is they all have a moment, at least, of being real beasts, though they may be more generally their own worst enemies, but this production reversed the proportions; Arkadina, for example, has exactly one scene of not being a screaming monster, when she changes Konstantin's bandage. The rest of the time she's like something out of Mel Brooks, not to knock Mel Brooks. I'd actually urge you to get in a time machine so you can go back and not see this for the entire run, rather than simply not seeing it tomorrow. (If you'd prefer a version of Chekhov whose humanism matches that of the playwright, hop on Netflix and queue up Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street with a radiant, pre-famous Julianne Moore and the witty, angry, wrenchingly human Vanya of Wallace Shawn. The rest of the cast somehow matches their brilliance.)

ETA: Like the first robin of spring is Maury's first glaring mistake of the season, I like to think. It is pointed out by an anonymous commenter that Trevor Nunn's production of Peter Grimes has been scrapped, Met-wise, in favor of one by John Doyle, whose production of Company was downright brimming with humanity, so there is in fact no relevance whatsoever to my brief swipe at Trevor Nunn, above, except oh hey I went to the theater instead of the opera for a change.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Suppose I should liveblog Romeo un peu

But vraiment not that damn much, because I'm going to see it later in the run. I think we decided on a Kaiserabend in case he turns out to be the season's second scarcely post-adolescent tenor having a star-is-born moment. I'm very fond of Alagna in French stuff but I'm also really not that able to sit still through Romeo in particular, so multiple outings were definitely not on the agenda. Besides which, tickets weren't exactly lying around in piles, the wind seeming to whisper "claim me" between their tickety folds.

The Waltz is a good...short story by Dorothy Parker, if you've never read it, but that's not where I meant to go. I just hesitated for a moment because I don't think The Waltz, Juliette's, is much of a good anything. I've never heard anyone really make it sound like anything other than something to get through. But what it's useful as is a sort of stylistic thermometer by which to tell whether the canary in question has anything of France about her.

Netrebko doesn't. It was better than expected, in that she didn't have to take it andante to fit the notes in, which I thought she might. The thing feels droopy. It's like late Sutherland without some of the brilliance, I'd imagine, not having heard Sutherland outside of sound documents. But Trebs--it's instantly identifiable, which will serve her well, but partly that's because it has a darkened (as opposed to merely dark) quality that makes her vowels indistinct, and a little pitch indecision sometimes at either end of a note, which come to think of it isn't incompatible with good French singing. But overall, the sound is...I used to joke that Sutherland's vowels were downright Polynesian. Upon further, though still superficial research, it turns out I should have said "she sings like a speaker of Quechua," since Quechua has three vowels whereas Polynesian languages tend to have five, but you get the point, and are sorry you learned to read, at this point. Proto-Slavic has four, and Malagasy. Ok, ok. I just think this stuff is interesting. (And Navajo!)

Is Alagna having a tougher time with "Ah, leve-toi" than Vargas did? We made a number of unkind remarks about Vargas in his purple velour, but there wasn't much to complain about in terms of singing. Alagna's vibrato is a little bit troubling. I can't tell if he still insists on his Parisian "r" in singing. Did I mention my speakers? It is not impossible I am listening to a country music station.

Ok, I'm completely tuning this out. What I really need right now is dinner, so happy listening to all. Before I go, here's a terrific Lucia review from someone who (where singing is concerned) agrees with me on absolutely nothing...except for Stephen Costello, who is the only person getting across-the-board good notices. (I know, not entirely fair, since Zeppo is an extremely short role.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

I hardly know 'er more

In the late 1980's the public library in Lexington, Kentucky was beginning to exit the age of the cassette, and among their fairly sparse classical acquisitions was what is cheekily known as Lucia von Lammermoor if you're that kind. It was my first Callas and maybe my first full opera recording, and then I gave it up for a good fifteen years, not the recording but the whole work. Even with Callas, it felt antique in its expression, like a music box. I gave it up so completely, in fact, that a few weeks ago not only did I find I didn't own a recording, up on which to bone, but...well, I was the fellow standing in the corner of Academy, hoping they didn't have a no-cell-phone rule, muttering at anyone who would pick up, "can you google, uh...try this string: callas, lucia, sextet, encore." Because as it happens, there's a Karajan/Callas/di Stefano from La Scala, so how was I to know? Well, I got the right one, with a little help from my friends. What I didn't remember, actually, is that di Stefano gets a notably warmer hand from the folks in Berlin than Callas. But that's neither here, nor there, nor any of several other places.

It turned out I did remember Lucia pretty damn well. When it's the first opera you practically lock yourself in the bathroom with, it's not recording over anything else. And, as I know I'm in favor of performance cuts, right? Even pretty brutal ones. I can't imagine any reason at all to listen to every fucking bar of La Vestale, you know?* I read in the program this evening that Melba pulled the world's most hilariously get-a-load-of-me diva trick and had them lop off everything after the mad scene of Lucia, but I think she started from the wrong end.

The first act of Lucia is approximately as dramatic as clipping your nails. You'll never hear Normanno over the choir, the fountain scene is like an Anna Russell skit making fun of what bel canto operas are like, and okay, it's probably just me, but "veranno a te" has always seemed ideally suited to olympic skating. I feel like the only way to stage it that would be in tune with the hokiness of absolutely everything going on would be for the tenor and the soprano to stand side by side, swaying, and encouraging the audience to follow suit. It's just pure banality. Mary Zimmerman didn't find any way around it, although the dramatic highlight of the act had either to do with Mary Zimmerman flopping a pixieish French voodoo doll around backstage somewhere or an unknown plotline in which Lucia comes up against the dreaded invisible Scottish banana peel of County Clare or wherever the hell Lammermoor is.**

If you were listening to the broadcast and heard excessive audience response to Regnava/Quando rapito, which frankly were good but not star material, sort of Dessay set on "stun", it's because she took a dramatic tumble right in the middle and DIDN'T MISS A SINGLE NOTE. The thing she did miss, it must be said (now that other reviewers have reminded me of it) were the trills. They made an appearance later on, but in this act, I guess they were still in storage.

I think we should talk about Mary Zimmerman for a minute. I mean should we? Nevermind, I forgot I can't hear you. Yes, rumor had it that she and My New Best Friend Natalie Dessay (henceforth: MNBFND) were not sitting up nights braiding each other's hair and talking about boys. I shall never know, as I'm not exactly a lightning rod for gossip. But it does make you wonder: I've heard stories of theater directors showing up for an opera not knowing any of what we ex-linguists call "the target language" at all, and I've heard one particularly alarming tale of a director saying "wait, there's music here but nothing's happening. What's everyone supposed to do?" (At which point the very ground opened up and the earth spake thusly, saying: that's what YOU'RE supposed to figure out.) Like, when your tenor is killing himself and the chorus is singing "Wait. Don't." There has to be SOME reason they're not stopping him unless the revisionist backstory here is that they never liked him that much anyway. See also: when everyone is sitting, waiting for the bride, they should not move in perfect unison like a school of fish when glancing around to see if she's there yet.

I think some of that may have been going on. This was not a bad production, but it didn't make much of a case for replacing the old one. A few touches I liked a lot included one that could have gone horribly wrong: during the sextet, a photographer was grouping everyone but Enrico the Drama Llama (nay, Enrico the Drama Dalai Llama) together for a supremely uncomfortable photograph, complete with flash at the end, so it's a good thing there wasn't an encore this time, though I'd have been all for one. Right, photo. Did I mention the update? I guess the thing going on was kind of Wilkie Colins illustrated by Edward Gorey? There was also some need to literalize the ghost story parts, which I found questionably effective. The other big problem was the use of drops with big holes in them to make two sets out of one. In one of those fickle realism/not-so-realism moments, for me it was the gigantic, scenic version of a plastic pair of glasses with nose and fluffy moustache. Lighting choices were occasionally perverse, as the apparent sunrise followed immediately by rising chandeliers. On the whole there was nothing startling, nothing to boo the production team about.

But, hey, it's all about the mad scene, a bewitching piece of stagecraft all around, and a musical home run, wherein the baseball player in my metaphor then takes a taxi over to a basketball court to sink an equally metaphorical slam dunk. Yes, you get a certain amount of love from the assembled public if you hit all the notes, but it's not by any means an automatic triumph. I once heard the lovely Ruth Ann Swenson sing the thing as if it were the theme song from "Barney." You can put what you want into it, and that includes not only tonally radiant dullery and riveting word painting, but also many combinations of these and any degree of physical acting. It has been lamented in some parts that the Met is heading in the direction of singers who act with their faces but not their voices, and not without reason. Dessay is simply not implicated in this scheme. She's in for a penny; in for a pound.

One had worried about Natalie Dessay. Reports of nodes. Questions about the workability of a shift into solid lyric terrain. If there's anything going wrong now, I can't tell you what it is. I used to find the color of her voice a little acrid when it hit the heights, but what she's doing now is working. The florid facility is still there, the acuti are neither clipped nor taut, and she's comfortable enough doing all of it that she can lend a wonderful improvisational flavor to her ornaments, if they are not in fact improvised, which I don't know. Several of them were certainly not standard. And she walks like she's losing her mind, and though the palette is still not as prodigious as that of the ever-looming Greek shadow, she is able to play a kind of more frenzied neurasthenia to such a pitch as to really impart that thing we hope for: a sense of risk.

No, I'm not actually going to tell you much about the other singers, because I just wasn't as tuned in to them, and that's certainly not their fault. My general impression is that Kwiecien and Relyea gave their all, which is plenty, and though I'd rather hear Giordani in something more dramatic where the sweetness of tone is not missed, he sang with great style and sometimes with lyricisim. A heads up: you might want to catch the performance in which Stephen Costello graduates from...Shemp, or whatever the character's named, to Enrico, because I think in a year or two you may have trouble getting tickets to hear him. This is just a hunch still, based on not that much, but I will tell you the boy isn't even my type so I'm at least not listening with the ears in my pants.

I posted recently about the lack of long ovations. The ovation after the mad scene was long and lusty. The one at the end of the show, so protracted as to be awkward when the lights were already long up. Dessay was hilarious, making fun of her fall, and waving a lot and, well, not so much clapping for Mary Zimmerman, what do cats say in French, miau? And they did the ritual of trotting them all out onto the balcony for the crowd in the Plaza to yell their fool heads off, and when they came back in we yelled some more from the staircases.

A couple of gents carried on the wear-kimonos-to-Butterfly tradition with their kilts, which means I'm going to start a furious campaign to have a season opener of Porgy & Bess one of these seasons just so I can see 90 year old ladies from the Upper East Side in blackface. Renee Fleming and Nathan Gunn will star, with Anna Netrebko as Clara. Ok, it is officially time for me to shut the hell up. [Which I did, kind of, and then posted more in the morning, and then got edit-happy, and my god, if you have this on any kind of feed, you will have received like ten versions of this. Sorry!]

I suppose I didn't really comment on the overall quality of the thing here, spent my time on the trees and neglected the forest. The thing is, I'm really not kidding about cuts, though I suppose I'm, yeah, kidding about cutting all of Act I. But I have older performances in my head, before Bonynge started bobbing for eighth notes in dark cupboards in Italy, bringing home semiquavers for Joanie. And I just think sometimes (as in the end of "Quando rapito") it doesn't make for any great musical truth to restore every last trip through the key signature, and in cases like the Wolf's Glen scene, it is really worth asking why it was so often cut. Here the answer is: it ruins the dramatic pacing. Maury's Law of Editing states that completeness is not the same thing as perfection. There's something extremely satisfying about the arc of superficial cheerfulness-extreme awkwardness-high drama-terror that then sends us out the door with (ideally) the pathos of the tenor's double-header, pace Madame Melba.

Just the same, thanks to Local Hero Levine and yes, also to Mary Zimmerman no doubt, everything after the maybe unavoidably draggy first act (ok, for me, everything except for the Wolf's Glen scene, honestly) was in gear. The second act in particular was transporting, producing near the end that feeling of small-scale cardiac arrest. If I never got that feeling, I'd stop going to the opera. Some have complained of Levine's temperamental disconnect with Donizetti, but I'd have to disagree strongly. I'm as much surprised as pleased to welcome Donizetti With A Pulse from the baton of our hometown Wagnerian.

Last thought: Dessay's post-crackup exit was staged in such a way (and of course I don't know if this was the intended effect) as to milk longer response from the audience, which it certainly did--longer and louder, I can report, having found myself seated in front of that well known purveyor of "private recordings" whose "bravo" is the loudest in the spectator biz.

*sorry, Straussmonster

**I hope it's Scottish and not Irish. Listen, all my life people from the northeast asked if I was from Tennessee and people from the south asked if I was from Connecticut. Don't start with me. p.s. Lammermoor doesn't seem to exist.

Oh wait. I'm not done. You'll be wanting to know what famous people I saw, right?! Well, I almost walked into the ravishing Mary Louise Parker, one of those people who actually is even prettier than you think she is from tv. Um, and there was some gal in an orange frock, and I had a conversation in Spanish with this guy with a camera to try and figure out who she was, and my Spanish being what it was, if this happened in English it would be like

Me: Lady in dress who is?
El dude: blrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmovierrrrrrrrrr
Me: (to his girlfriend) I say, dress in lady who is? Is orange, dress is.
La chick: blrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrLeonardo di Capriorrrrrrrrrr

Spanish. It's fast. I guess she was in a movie with Leonardo di Caprio. Or she's his mom, and the guy just likes talking about movies.

Who else...Bob Balaban....some lady in an ornate dress with red hair I decided was Tina Louise, but ok maybe not...Marilyn Horne, who went up and spoke to the MC beforehand and then must have been quite surprised to hear same MC two minutes later say to Trebs (who looked great) "Oh, you're the first opera singer that's come up to talk to us."

Here for pics of the plaza crowd. Here for a somewhat less than impressed review. Here the always worth reading Mr. Bernheimer finds the cast making up for the production, and also waxing enthusiastic about the young Mr. Costello. I'll stop updating the links now.

Ok, seriously. Good night, opera folks.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Step right up!

I don't have ads on here (mostly out of laziness--I think I got halfway through the google ads thing once and then saw a shiny object or something) but I do think I'll point you toward an opera-for-sale site I stumbled upon via Parterre that has some excellent inventory dirt cheap. I got the free download, was struggling with unzipping it because I'm sort of your grandmother when it comes to computer stuff sometimes, and emailed a little with the guy who runs it, who was helpful and nice and mentioned he's just starting up, so here I am with my megaphone. The site is:

There's some crazy rare Souliotis, a Jenufa with the great Irene Dalis as the big K, things like that. All I've listened to so far is the Tabarro, from which I was expecting little beyond "oh hey, it's Il Tabarro!" because I'd never heard of Clara Petrella and remembered Mirto Picchi dimly as the shadow cast by the blazing light of Callas on some Norma. You know, thinking back on the Met cast, I'm wondering if Il Tabarro is the operatic equivalent of the jeans in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (C'mon guys, secretly you all saw it too, right? Hm. Why are those crickets chirping? Who let crickets in?) in that everyone looks good in it. Petrella seems little bit why-didn't-I-know-about-you though, srsly.

On a wholly, but wholly unrelated note, did anyone else do a double take in the middle of this article about a cow that got loose in Brooklyn? You'll know where.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stepping off my beat for a moment

God only knows what's with my unmanageable tendency to post about things I'm only halfway through reading.* But here I go again, this time about Joyce Hatto, at least until I veer off somewhere completely unrelated. I'm out of my depth from the git-go on this one, as I love a piano as much as the next Marx brother, but am not really a phile. One thing I do find fascinating is this: as opera fans, we all revel in being able to clock Dusolina Giannini in two measures, at forty paces, aurally speaking. And apparently, from what I'm reading in the New Yorker piece as well as what I remember from back before I abandoned classical music wherein nobody (Thank you Terrence MacNally) dies....those whose forte is piano get possessed by the exact same gameshow geist.

Surely it adds a flavor of intrigue to think that there may be artifice and therefore mysteries that can't be solved with a glance at the album cover. I've always felt a little extra interest in my Kleiber Rosenkavalier on some fly-by-night label wherein a singer I'm basically positive is the beloved Lucia Popp (and esteemed others have said the same) is cagily listed as one Hilde da Groote--who apparently did exist and even sing, though I find it tough to believe she managed to shovel the same amount of irresistible flirtation into the single word "Quinquin" when Sophie tells Oktavian what the one other etwas she knows about him is.

Here's the thing, for me. I had always wondered if people could tell their favorite instrumentalists apart the way we can tell Janowitz from Brouwenstijn, you and me. Because no matter how individual the fall of your fingers on a keyboard, it's never going to have the same absolutely organic instrument/musician gesammstkunstwerker connection as when the musican is the instrument. So really I find it fascinating to imagine being able to tell instrumentalists apart; I suppose in extreme cases you can see how it could be done, really individualistic accents like Heifetz' legato, that sometimes sounds like a human voice articulating a "w" (here again I betray my prejudice: things are distinct insofar as they're voice-like) or of course people who play a distinctive instrument, Landowska on her Pleyel, and for that matter melting the notes into one another as if it were a flute, which isn't possible. Horowitz, I understand, played with such sheer volume it might tip the listener off, but then wasn't there a scandal of sorts about that, too?

The point here, if there is one, is that our ability to recognize a musician blind is tightly bound to our sense of ourselves as having meaningful feelings about what makes good music. I remember my own first absolutely certain aural i.d., and it was (hi again!) Lucia Popp, and I don't think it's a coincidence she was for many years my vocal uberdivchen and remains essential to my understanding of good singing. Some awful part of us that is structurally related to cosmic trainwrecks like No Child Left Behind, that is to say, to measures of goodness that satisfy us by being consistent but/therefore are troubled or even worthless, is also responsible for the idea that you can't really like Berger better than Gueden if you run any risk of mistaking one for another.

Ah, something there is in me that doesn't love a statistic, that's for sure, and that same thing doesn't love the idea that the value of a performance has anything to do with what face or what fingers brought it into being. But who can deny that part of the love of all of this is a feeling of connection to the chap behind the chaconne? Maybe part of the trend, which I still think may be overstated, toward singers with world-class faces is that we're afraid of being tricked when we love a singer (pianist, violist, glass harmonic...ker) with our ears.

But I don't really think so, not for sure. I'm just talking. Six more days and I can resume talking whereof I have a clue.

Unrelated: I do roll my eyes a bit when people beseech and apostrophize the powers that be on Opera-L or any other den of tinfoil millinery, apparently half expecting Peter Gelb, sitting at a terminal somewhere, to smack his forehead and yelp, "Great Scott! Why didn't I think of that?!" So think of this just as my fantasy, but if it is true what is hinted over at that scandalous rumour mill we call Parterre, and my guess about this rumor in particular is correct, and the lovely Bayrakdarian is going to desusannify due to being otherwise occupied in every sense (picture her with a little sign that says "occupied"...) Well then I just had this divoon thought about what the Met should do, and that's correct an oversight of many years and see what Lisa Saffer's doing. We have spoken.

*"...and he isn't talking," as the punchline goes. The nonexistent can be so taciturn.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quite wrong

The minute I looked at my program I realized the program was not at all what I thought, not a gala celebration of Sills, but rather a real memorial, a loving tribute by friends and family, with a little music. Not at all appropriate for a frothy write-up of who sang what and how, with cracks at Henry Kissinger (no matter what I may think of him.) Apologies if you read the earlier entry. I'm about to take it down. I hope you heard the broadcast. Carol Burnett and Stanley Sills spoke particularly movingly, and for that matter, it must be admitted, so did Kissinger.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Minutes from the Milton Host Fan Club

A propos de rien, I have to say that the intros over at Unnatural Acts of Opera have gotten riotously funny, in case you haven't heard them lately. The latest doubles as a sort of voice ID quiz gone off the tracks.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Two words more (le diro con due parole)

More than a lot of the singers who have gone, Pav feels like everyone's to mourn, and not mine in particular (I know I say this constantly), but a comment on Parterre reminded me of one small story of my connection to the singer, and I'd like it to be my little garland to throw: In 1992 I was on a flight from Austin to Lexington, one of the last times I flew. I'd tried various things to calm my nerves, breathing deeply, thinking good and floaty thoughts, swilling valerian root as if I were backstage at the Moscow Art Theater in the time of Chekhov...what finally made me feel less like I was going to die or more like it would be okay if I did just then was the friend we've just lost. I had taped the first big chunk of Der Rosenkavalier to cassette, and hadn't really found my way into it, hadn't listened with libretto, didn't know why there was suddenly a tenor and then he was gone for the rest of the opera. But I got to "Di rigori armato," and felt a little better, and from there I rewound and relistened, surely a dozen times, and if you know from irrational fear, you will know I mean it when I say it felt just a little like he saved me from something awful. It's a mildly satirical little cameo, but only works if done sincerely and beautifully. In the hands/cords of LP, legato on the words "ahi che resiste" laid on with evident love, impossible runs up to C delivered with a tiny swagger, it is a thing of beauty, enough beauty to cast a pale glint even over the fear of death. That, I guess, is how I think of his voice, even if I feel the loss less than I have for those whose voices brought up stormier things in my soul.

Another, I'm afraid

Luciano Pavarotti, Italian Tenor, is Dead at 71