Tag Archives: opera

‘Cellini’ film shows wisdom of over-the-top approach

AUSTRIA/Maija Kovalevska in Benvenuto Cellini.

Today I took a break from a lot of editing tests, reporting and writing to take in a showing, via Emerging Pictures, of the 2007 Salzburg Festival production of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini (here’s the trailer).

This production, in which all the singing, particularly that of the Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska and the American mezzo Kate Aldrich, was excellent, got a lot of criticism for its out-there staging. The scene has been changed from the 16th century to the mid-21st, or thereabouts, when wealthy families will be able to rely on robots and/or androids to get themselves primped up for a night on the town (as in the picture above).

And there are all kinds of other bits of manic invention, such as the arrival of Pope Clement VII at the Cellini foundry in a red cruiser with a lighted-cross hood ornament, or the scene in Act I in which the rival sculptor Fieramosca is set upon by a chorus of women bearing brooms. It struck me during the opera that these kinds of things were so memorable they took away from the thrust of the piece.

But then I thought: Well, that’s not such a bad thing. As I listened, I could picture in my mind’s eye a sober, traditionally minded staging of this piece, with period costumes and stiff characters, and frankly, I could also imagine how monumentally dull it would be. The problem is that the libretto, by Barbier and de Wailly, is pretty awful, and a normal staging would be hard to take.

The other problem is the music. It’s brilliant, for the most part, with astonishing orchestration, vivid colors and terrific choral writing that thrums with a kind of excitement and exuberance that fits the image that has come down to us of Berlioz, that of an intellect and an artistic identity on fire. You can hear his influence on Wagner, among other people (Cellini was first performed in 1838), and it is in every sense of the word original.

But, for all its energy and power, it’s also oddly stiff, and this has something to do with Berlioz’ admiration of Spontini, I suspect. I don’t know that much of Spontini’s work, but grandeur and seriousness of intent is critical in the pieces I have heard (and there is a large amount of his music on YouTube, interestingly enough). Berlioz’ music for Cellini has passion and spirit to burn, but the Stolzl production shows that it also is old-fashioned in a grand-opera way.

Much of the music is first-rate, but it falls short of being a first-rate opera, at least for today’s sensibilities, because its melodic inspiration is not that effective, and while the score glimmers with orchestral genius, it also lacks a certain variety that would make the opera easier to take in a more sober staging.

As is, it seems to me that Philipp Stolzl did Berlioz a favor by coming up with this bold, manic staging, indebted as it is to television. movies and pop culture, and so full of the short-attention-span mentality prevalent today. Having so much crazy stuff to look at, so much business (including the theft from Star Wars of the idea of C3PO without a head for Ascanio’s aria), takes the viewer’s mind off some of the stasis of the music.

That’s how it struck me, at least. I greatly enjoyed this production, loved Kovalevska and Aldrich, and especially enjoyed hearing what is probably the best performance overall this opera has ever received. But it also showed that opera, like movies, is beholden to spectacle these days, and that Berlioz’ score, while unfairly neglected, has been pushed aside for other reasons than just its difficulty of presentation.

Soon, audiences will want fresher opera repertory

parmagiovanna1109

Svetla Vassileva as Joan of Arc in Giovanna d’Arco.

May 5, 2009
One more word about opera repertory: There seems to be a lot of different information about the kinds of operas being presented these days at American opera companies.
From my perspective, while the news as expressed in this 2007 piece from The American is rather positive, much of the repertory I’ve seen and will see in the near future down here in South Florida is very much along well-worn roads. 
Of the two local opera companies — Palm Beach and Florida Grand — in the coming season I can look forward to two Carmens, one Barber of Seville, one Don Giovanni, one Lucia, one Otello (Verdi’s, of course) and a Pag without the Cav (thank heaven) — the other one-act will be Suor Angelica. 
If I include Sarasota a couple hours away, it’s a little better, but there’s still a Cav and Pag and a Traviata, along with a Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, and the one rarity: Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, part of that company’s complete Verdi cycle. Except for that last-named opera, and perhaps Otello and Suor Angelica, to a lesser extent, not a single one of these pieces hasn’t been done and done and done and done.
I’m not saying anything particularly bold or new by pointing to the ossification of the repertory, and we all understand economic pressures and how that makes arts groups even more reluctant to try things. But I don’t really know how many more Carmens I can sit through, not to mention Il Barbiere, which has never been one of my favorite pieces, and it’s too often mounted as an excuse for over-the-top clowning, apparently in the belief that the recitatives will go over easier that way.
What annoys me about this is that the times when companies do present new things, it’s always a brand-new piece, and while that’s terrific for composers, most opera houses would probably be better off finding overlooked things from the core repertory than commissioning an entirely new work. The two composers whose works are now in repertory in a way they weren’t 30 years ago are Handel and Janacek, for very different reasons.
More singers are now able to handle the Baroque style, it having benefited from decades of excellent scholarship, and that opens up Handel, which is rich in melody and effective theatrical music. Janacek, for his part, set some wonderfully bizarre libretti that are hard to resist, more singers can handle languages such as Czech, and his music is modern and contemporary sounding without being atonal. It’s late Romantic music, and that’s just fine for the average opera fan.
What I’d like to see is some real variety, and I’m fairly sure regular opera goers would like some, too. Maybe there is a way scaled-back productions of some of these pieces can be done to give us all a rest from the usual favorites. Just off the top of my head, it would be nice to see something like Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, Nielsen’s Maskerade; even early Wagner, Lohengrin instead of all those Rings; a Donizetti like the delicious bit of Linda di Chamounix I heard the other day; Faure’s Penelope or something by Auber; Dvorak’s Jacobin, with its catchy tunes everywhere; Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, which I saw this week in a marvelous production on DVD from the Netherlands Opera. 
It just seems to me that a lot of these pieces present tremendous opportunities for singers, stage directors, and companies, and while I know you can’t do without good box office, I think some of these things would make good box office, and if not, they could be artistic successes and keep everyone on their toes and looking for fresh challenges.
I think technology has made it much more likely that current and future audiences are going to have much wider expectations of repertory than what we see these days, and I hope someday to be the beneficiary.
http://www.american.com/archive/2007/july-august-magazine-contents/america2019s-opera-boom/
http://www.operaamerica.org/Applications/Schedule/index.aspx

One more word about opera repertory: There seems to be a lot of different information about the kinds of operas being presented these days at American opera companies.

From my perspective, while the news as expressed in this 2007 piece from The American is rather positive, much of the repertory I’ve seen and will see in the near future down here in South Florida is very much along well-worn roads. 

Of the two local opera companies — Palm Beach and Florida Grand — in the coming season I can look forward to two Carmens, one Barber of Seville, one Don Giovanni, one Lucia, one Otello (Verdi’s, of course) and a Pag without the Cav (thank heaven) — the other one-act will be Suor Angelica

If I include Sarasota a couple hours away, it’s a little better, but there’s still a Cav and Pag and a Traviata, along with a Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, and the one rarity: Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, part of that company’s complete Verdi cycle. Except for that last-named opera, and perhaps Otello and Suor Angelica, to a lesser extent, not a single one of these pieces hasn’t been done and done and done and done.

I’m not saying anything particularly bold or new by pointing to the ossification of the repertory, and we all understand economic pressures and how that makes arts groups even more reluctant to try things. But I don’t really know how many more Carmens I can sit through, not to mention Il Barbiere, which has never been one of my favorite pieces, and it’s too often mounted as an excuse for over-the-top clowning, apparently in the belief that the recitatives will go over easier that way.

What annoys me about this is that the times when companies do present new things, it’s always a brand-new piece, and while that’s terrific for composers, most opera houses would probably be better off finding overlooked things from the core repertory than commissioning an entirely new work. The two composers whose works are now in repertory in a way they weren’t 30 years ago are Handel and Janacek, for very different reasons.

More singers are now able to handle the Baroque style, it having benefited from decades of excellent scholarship, and that opens up Handel, which is rich in melody and effective theatrical music. Janacek, for his part, set some wonderfully bizarre libretti that are hard to resist, more singers can handle languages such as Czech, and his music is modern and contemporary sounding without being atonal. It’s late Romantic music, and that’s just fine for the average opera fan.

What I’d like to see is some real variety, and I’m fairly sure regular opera goers would like some, too. Maybe there is a way scaled-back productions of some of these pieces can be done to give us all a rest from the usual favorites. Just off the top of my head, it would be nice to see something like Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, Nielsen’s Maskerade; even early Wagner, Lohengrin instead of all those Rings; a Donizetti like the delicious bit of Linda di Chamounix I heard the other day; Faure’s Penelope or something by Auber; Dvorak’s Jacobin, with its catchy tunes everywhere; Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, which I saw this week in a marvelous production on DVD from the Netherlands Opera. 

It just seems to me that a lot of these pieces present tremendous opportunities for singers, stage directors, and companies, and while I know you can’t do without good box office, I think some of these things would make good box office, and if not, they could be artistic successes and keep everyone on their toes and looking for fresh challenges.

I think technology has made it much more likely that current and future audiences are going to have much wider expectations of repertory than what we see these days, and I hope someday to be the beneficiary.

In search of Rossini’s ‘Otello’

 

malibran_Maria Malibran as Desdemona.

One of the things that has kept me very busy over the past few months is freelance writing for various publications, one of them The Miami Herald.

For the Herald, I did a piece about Jose Carreras, the Catalan tenor most well-known as a member of The Three Tenors. I’m probably one of the only classical music journalists left in the world who hasn’t talked to him, but he was wonderfully gracious and quite easy to talk to, and I’m grateful to him for making things work so well.

In the course of our discussion, I asked him about obscure operas. He’s done quite a few of the early Verdi operas (Un Giorno di Regno, for instance), and ended his stage career singing, of all things, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly. (Part of one of those performances can be seen on YouTube.)

I wanted to ask him about this because in the course of my research for the piece I did some looking into his discography and came away very impressed by the sheer volume of work he’s done, and in particular, the offbeat work such as the Verdi rarities. So I asked him which opera of all the unusual ones he’s done should appear more regularly on the world’s opera stages.

His answer: Rossini’s Otello. Here’s the section of the story (this part didn’t run) in which we discussed it:

“I always liked to do, besides the basic repertoire, what you call rarities,” he said. “Besides [Un] Giorno di Regno, many other early Verdi operas …  Il Corsaro, [La] Battaglia de Legnano, [I] Due Foscari, Stiffelio; or Rossini’s Otello, Rossini’s Elisabetta d’Inghilterra.  I always like to escape routine. I think this is also very important for an artist.”

It’s also good for the general public to know the music better, Carreras said, and that means all of the Verdi operas, “from  A to Zed.” But the opera that sticks out for him as a real treasure is the Rossini Otello, which he recorded with the American mezzo Frederica von Stade in the early 1980s.

“I know that one of the problems is to find the right cast, because, can you imagine, we’re talking about an opera with six tenors. Which opera director wants to face that?” he said, laughing. “But I think it’s a great opera.”

So I’ve been wandering around the Net looking for performances of it, and there are plenty on YouTube alone, including one of von Stade singing the Willow Song (Assisa al pie d’un salice) from Act III. I was not familiar with this 1816 opera (except through the Liszt transcription of one of the arias), and while it has an early 19th-century beauty that is not quite as compelling to me as the Verdi treatment 70 years later, it’s still wonderful music, and I can see why it was so popular for most of that century before Verdi’s displaced it. 

Oddly enough, tonight as I was reading a Mendelssohn biography (R. Larry Todd’s), I came to the section in which Mendelssohn first visited England in 1829. The first concert he went to? The opera, where he saw Otello, with Maria Malibran.

Philip Gossett once wrote that Rossini deserves the credit for establishing the norms of operatic drama as we still know it in large part today, and I for one would love to hear something other than Il Barbiere or Cenerentola if I’m going to hear Rossini. I remember once many years ago getting my hands on a complete recording of William Tell, and found it astounding, and when it comes to length and expense, we’ll do that for Wagner, apparently, but not Rossini.

It’s too bad, and I’ve got more to say about operatic repertory, but will post a followup later. In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to talk to Jose Carreras and get inspired to look a little harder at the lesser-known parts of the operatic canon.

Here’s a performance from Spain, in Carreras’ hometown of Barcelona, in which the Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, as part of her Malibran tribute, sings the Willow Song. I like the way she does this, and I love the period instruments the orchestra uses (this is Part 1, but the uploader has a link to Part 2 in the notes):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhpunUpkIoU&hl=en&fs=1]

Anna as an opera? I thought so, too

anna-nicole-smith-carmen-electra

I’m not quite sure to whom I should address this appeal, except perhaps to note it as an entry for the Emerson Alienated Majesty File.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said this, in his 1841 essay Self-Reliance:

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Emerson, the original great American quote machine, had something a little more profound in mind than seeing someone else use an idea you had and regretting. He’s talking about trusting your own instincts and being original, and not to follow the crowd.  

3229201Still, it was this quote that I thought of when I found out while reading an e-mail about something else that the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage is writing an opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. He was commissioned to do so last month by the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Great idea, you might say. She makes a terrific subject for an opera. 

And I’d agree with you, because in February 2007, almost two years to the day before The Guardian announced this plan, I had written a blog entry for The Post in which I floated this very idea.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit Exhibit A.

As you can see by this Feb. 10, 2007, entry, I thought an opera about Smith would be interesting but somewhat tacky. I did not realize that it was a stroke of theatrical genius that would be turned into a successful idea for someone else.

Ah, well.

Yes, Your Majesty, if I may say, you’re looking somewhat alienated tonight.

Obviously, either my little blog led to this plan directly, or, which is much more likely, it occurred to someone else, too. Looking at my older post again, it strikes me afresh that Smith really does make a sensational opera subject, and it can be abstracted away from the actual details as a larger story about the dark side of fame and how the quest for true love and happiness never leaves us.

And next time I’ll keep my cybermouth shut and write the opera myself.

P.S. Since I found about this through reading a press release about another Turnage project, I am duty bound to pass along the original information.

A new theater company in my ancestral Chicago home is producing the Chicago premiere of Turnage’s Greek, an opera that retells the Oedipus myth in terms of Thatcherite Britain during the 1980s.

Chicago Opera Vanguard is inviting people to take part in the production by contributing small amounts of money in exchange for uploading images to a virtual graffiti wall. Every buck gets you a 4-by-4-pixel space, and the whole wall of contributions is part of the performance, which is set for previews on May 26.

Great art keeps revealing itself

 

draft_lens1392554module13047218photo_1229321812mozart

This past week I saw the Palm Beach Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro, and quite enjoyed it, as I mention here in my review of the first cast.

One of the best things about this performance is that it allowed me to hear Mozart’s achievement more clearly than I have in some time. I had an old cassette tape version of the opera (Lucia Popp, Samuel Ramey, Kiri Te Kanawa, Thomas Allen, Frederica von Stade; LSO/Solti), but since I can’t find a working tape player in this house, I had to download the Uphsaw-Furlanetto-Levine version onto my wife’s iPod as I dug out my score and listened while I prepped for the show.

But even that didn’t prepare me for the insight I got as I sait and heard the music unfold along with the opera. The magnificence of Mozart’s achievement struck me quite forcefully during the performance, at no place more than in the Count’s Act III recitative and aria that begins Ha gia vinta la causa, a longtime favorite of bass-baritones.

As I listened to it, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the fruition of that letter Mozart wrote to his father a few years earlier, when he was writing Die Entfurhung aus dem Serail:

…and as his rage continues to grow, just when you think the aria is over, the allegro assai — in a completely different meter and different key — is bound to be tremendously effective; just as a person in such a violent rage oversteps all the bounds of order and moderation and overshoots the mark, completely forgetting himself, so the music must forget itself…” (Sept. 26, 1781)

This kind of psychological music-making is everywhere in Figaro, but it was in the Count’s aria that it really grabbed me, as the Count overhears Figaro and Susanna laughing and thinks they’re up to something. The music that punctuates the first lines is haughty and bluff, but then stops and speeds up as he says: Perfidi! and vows to punish them, the music gets more and more breathless.

Then, the miraculous part: Those soft F-sharp minor thirds as he puzzles it over in his mind: Wait a minute…did he actually pay off Marcellina? Can’t be. He doesn’t have a ducat…. Next, as the Count starts to feel better almost immediately about his prospects, the music starts leaves the anxiety of F-sharp minor behind and starts to sound happy and vigorous again. It’s an exceptional painting of a man’s mood, and the next composer to be able to pull this kind of thing off so successfully was Verdi, which puts Mozart a good 60 years ahead of his time. 

I think it was the way the music was played and sung Friday night that drove this home for me; there was a long pause before the entrance of those soft F-sharp minor triads, and it was played so slowly, quietly, and tentatively, yet with an urgent pulse, that in an instant I understood what Mozart was really trying to do. I’ve heard this aria many, many, many times, but it wasn’t until this past week that something so plain about it finally sunk in.

I think that says humiliating things about my perspicacity on the one hand, but good things about the power of Mozart on the other, and further, the power of great art to keep revealing its secrets if you just pay the right kind of attention.

Met’s live opera broadcasts return

I’ve had occasion in my previous blog to note the success of the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcasts at movie houses across the country, and if you haven’t seen them, well, you’re really missing out.

For $18, you can see an opera live with a far better view of  the action than you could get from any seat in the house. The operas are filmed with multiple camera angles, movie-style, and you can really get a good appreciation of all aspects of the production that you might not get in the theater: chorus costumes, for instance, or a key facial expression on a supporting character.

The intermission features are good, too. The interview Susan Graham did with Deborah Voigt during Tristan und Isolde last year was revealing for the insider nature of it. You got the sense that here were two friends and colleagues talking about the difficulty of singing Wagner, and Voigt in particular had a very appealing down-to-earth quality about the yards of leitmotif that she’d just sailed through: Just a singer, doing her job, and doing it well.

The Met is doing 11 of these live transmission this year, and they’re making sure to broadcast their riskiest productions along with their surefire shows. They’re broadcasting Madama Butterfly (March 7) and Lucia di Lammermoor (Feb. 7), but they’re also doing John Adams’ Doctor Atomic on Nov. 8, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust on Nov. 22, and Puccini’s rarely heard La Rondine on Jan. 10.

There is, of course, star power to burn in these and other productions: Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna do the Rondine, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon appear in Lucia, while Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay team up for La Sonnambula on March 21. That’s obviously a good part of the appeal of these broadcasts, but the best thing about them is that they’re being done at all.

Here is a smart use of new technology to bring this art form to much wider audiences, and there’s little doubt in my mind that these shows will bring some more converts to opera. The usual vagaries of performance and production aside, it’s hard to see how anyone new to opera wouldn’t benefit from seeing one of these broadcasts, and those of us who already love opera have an expanded set of appointment-viewing dates to consider for the season.

The Met’s broadcasts begin tonight with an opening night gala featuring Renee Fleming (pictured at the top of this post) in scenes from three operas: La Traviata (Act II), Manon (Act III), and the final scene of Capriccio, the last opera of Richard Strauss, one of Fleming’s favorite composers. The broadcast starts at 6 p.m. (You can see an encore presentation of it Nov. 15 at Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach; that’s when the Society will begin its Met HD broadcasts.)

If you’re an opera fan, you probably want to catch one of these performances this year. Here’s the schedule.

Respecting Puccini

The New York Times‘ Arts and Leisure section had an interesting piece on Puccini yesterday, bringing all of us up to date on a current scandal involving this composer, whose 150th birthday is being observed this year. Apparently, he might have had another love child than the boy he fathered with Elvira, the married woman who later became his wife.

The piece says this issue will be explored in a new movie about the composer, and I’m sure it will make diverting viewing. But Anthony Tommasini also points out something scholars have noted for many decades: That Puccini was a far more sophisticated composer than he gets credit for, though doubtless that credit gets withheld partly because of his popularity. Puccini had been a wildly successful composer since La Boheme premiered in 1896, and he died in late 1924 with an estate worth about $250 million in today’s dollars, according to Tommasini.

Julian Budden’s 2002 study of Puccini for Oxford’s Master Musicians series, which offers a good deal of musical analysis of each of the composer’s operas, also points out that he was beloved by the musical community of his time. “No composer received more affectionate posthumous tributes than he,” Budden wrote. “Affable, well-mannered, gifted with a broad sense of fun (reflected in his doggerel verses and Tuscan love of word-play), he rarely failed to charm all who met him.”

(Here’s a recording of his voice, made in 1907 when he was in New York; it can be found on the Puccini Institute site.)

There are a couple moments that stand out for me as evidence in particular of Puccini’s great skill; I concur with Tommasini about the Ping, Pang and Pong trio in Turandot, but one that really grabbed me once I actually heard what was going on was the finale of Act I of Tosca, the so-called Te Deum scene featuring the evil Baron Scarpia in one of the great bass-baritone set pieces in opera.

After the beginning of the scene — Tre sbirri, una carozza — Puccini combines ringing of church bells, a congregation saying Mass, the Scarpia’s machinations (Va, Tosca!), cannon fire, and then a chorus singing the Te Deum, all over a back-and-forth motion in the orchestra that slowly grows to a titanic conclusion.

Listening to it one day, it suddenly dawned on me that the climax of this act was nothing more or less than a unison sung line, supported only by horns and trombones. And yet it sounds gigantic.

Now, that’s the work of a skilled writer. He’s bringing everything he’s got to this massive ending, and then at the high point, the very peak, when Scarpia realizes that Tosca has made him forget God, almost every orchestral instrument drops out, leaving only the singers, all intoning the same notes. I’m sure a less imaginative composer would have kept the orchestral guns blazing right through it.

There are a number of performances available for viewing on YouTube, and the one from 1976 with Sherill Milnes is the most impressive vocally; it’s an unbelievably big and powerful sound.

But I like this performance just as much, maybe because the tempo’s a little bit more to my liking (Zubin Mehta is a very good Puccini conductor). This features Ruggero Raimondi in fine voice in a compelling TV (?) production from 1992:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3lPxwct2sk&hl=en&fs=1]