Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two Recitals By Two Very Different Sopranos

Back in November, the legendary dramatic soprano Aprile Millo gave a recital in the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center. This past Thursday, Federica von Stade, a champion for over 40 years of everything from classical to contemporary music, gave her farewell recital at Carnegie Hall. The former was in top vocal form, looking and sounding utterly fabulous after struggling with her weight the past few years. The later was warm, cute, and made a packed Carnegie Hall audience feel right at home. Both recitals were deemed highly successful by audiences and critics alike, and it is only now that I realize one's dramatic superiority over the other.
Both Ms. Millo and Ms. Stade narrated throughout their recitals, and effectively broke down the concert hall divisions between performer and spectator. Ms. Stade however, ended up coming across as a caricature of herself. Before each piece, she explained how it related to her life with a voice like she was narrating a story. Many times it was a song about Paris- "La Vie en rose" by Ned Rorem, "Voyage à Paris" and "Hôtel" by Francis Poulenc, and selections from "Les Jardins de Paris" by Marc Barthomieuand, just to name a few. Okay so she loves the city, but who doesn't? Other times it was a song about a convent, reminiscent of her childhood in Washington, D.C. ("A Prayer to Saint Catherine" by Virgil Thomson), or about her daughter ("Jenny Rebecca" written for her by Carol Hall), or just some topic she found pleasant. Even the Mahler ("Lob des hohen Verstandes", adapted from the folk story The Youth's Magic Horn) was light, where a donkey judges a contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale. Right before intermission, her longtime collaborators, the baritone Richard Stilwell and bass Samuel Ramey joined her for a charming trio rendition of Bernstein's "Some of the Time" from "On the Town." Her final selection, "Send In The Clowns" is always a gem to hear and fit her glimmering voice perfectly. Unfortunately, whatever the song was, it always had a happy ending and was never heart-wrenching. She talked to the audience in an overly dramatic way as if Carnegie Hall was full of children. The end product seemed like a cross between Cinderella and Julie Andrews. Her singing, on the other hand rang with golden and refined glamor, obviously having waned after a long career but still more than pleasant, and more than anything, mature. A successful recital, but a lot was missed. She got so famous in the 1970s by playing Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, a role full of yearning. That depth was missed here.
By stark contrast is the dramatic soprano Aprile Millo, considered by many to be the last beacon of light in a long line of Verdi sopranos. Her recital back in November is as vivid in my memory as if it were last week. Held in a much smaller venue than Carnegie Hall, The Rose Theatre's small stage and oval structure (like a small opera house) worked nicely, if less gloriously than Carnegie. She made up for the hall's lack in glamor by wearing a huge gown dress and tiara. The house was full with a highly enthusiastic audience.
From start to finish, she sang with as much conviction and unwavering intensity as she does on her most treasured recordings. The first half was full of songs by 19th century composers. Of particular note were Ermanno Wolf Ferrari's "Buondì, cara Venezia" (from Il Campiello), "Von ewiger Liebe" by Johannes Brahms, and "Ne poi, krasavitsa, pri mne" by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her voice is huge, with a very wide yet sensual vibrato. Her artistic maturity is also rare among singers today, as she infuses passion into every word she sings. In "Buondì, cara Venezia" and "Ne poi, krasavista, pri mne", her elongation of certain words and her ability to sing every note in her range at any dynamic marking made the music even more touching. This is a type of voice rarely heard today.
If the first half was moving, the second half was mesmerizing. After an unexpected early intermission (because of an audience member falling down some stairs), Ms. Millo came back with vigor. Her "Tre Canzone Nepoletane" were accompanied by a musician with equal expressivity, the accordionist Mary-Lou Vetere. And this just served as the warm up for the opera section... Here her complete musical capabilities were unleashed. She sang "Laggiu nel Soledad" from La Fanciulla del West, "Undiste...Ah dove sei crudele" from Il Trovatore, "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" from Boito's Mefistofele, and "Ed ora, io mi domado" from Leoncavallo's Zaza. Her technical control is utterly amazing. In less than a second, she can move from a beautiful pianissimo to the most glass-shattering forte, all while evenly supporting on the same note. The zenith came with "L'altra notte...", which she preceded with a comment asking the audience to bare with her. Here, her artistry and concentration silenced the audience, and the ovations following the piece were apocalyptic. How else could I remember it five months later? Ms. Millo is a singer who has not always been in the spotlight during her 25 year career, but who on that night showed us she is still an artist with drive. Despite my nagging cold, I never got bored.
Both Ms. Stade and Ms. Milo gave successful recitals. Ms. Stade has been and is likely to remain one of the world's most beloved sopranos. But Ms. Millo, even while in a far less glorious hall, pushed herself, lived in the moment, made people scream and made them cry. In my mind, that's what matters most.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Aria on the Future"

Renée Fleming, the populist diva, talks about her past, present, and future. Wall Street Journal article.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Solid Yet Uninspired Performance of Rare Rossini Opera

Renée Fleming long ago proved that she has some say as to what operas are produced at the Met. A versatile and technically aware singer with a unique buttery sound and enchanting stage presence, she has commanded roles in German, Italian, French, Czech, Russian, etc. and in 2008 became the only woman to highlight an Opening Night Gala for the Met, where she sang three acts from three different operas. Not always thought of as a master bel-canto singer, Ms. Fleming still managed to convinced the Met to stage Armida. An opera by Gioachino Rossini, it is one of the composer's nine serious operas from his time in Naples (1817-1822), and is rich in experimental music characterization. Armida is a sorceress, who throughout a nearly four hour long opera (including two intermissions) travels from desert to magical worlds and seduces six Crusaders, each a tenor role with incredibly difficult music. The opera is rarely staged, partly because of its traditional serious opera format that is so different from Rossini's comedies, but also because it is hard to find six tenors who can sing the music. For the opera's premiere in 1817 Rossini used only four tenors, one for the role of Rinaldo and three others for the remaining five roles. If there is a single 'bravo' to be heard about this production, it is the Met's ability at finding six tenors, each with a unique voice that stands up to the alluring Ms. Fleming.
The quickly rising star, Lawrence Brownlee sang Ronaldo with relaxed beauty, nailing passages throughout the two-and-a-third octaves role. He hit his high Ds with effortless accuracy, (the highest tenor note in the opera). Despite the pluses, his volume and projection were lacking. Singing next to José Manuel Zapata, his voice at times seemed dwarfed. On another note, no matter how much diction training one has, there is still a definite difference between a native English speaker and a native romance language speaker. Sorry to say, but Mr. Brownlee sang like a gringo. The remaining four tenors- Bruce Ford, Kobie van Rensburg, Barry Banks, and Yeghishe Manucharyan stood up to their demanding roles quite nicely.
Though always in control of her voice and full of warm sensual texture, Ms. Fleming seemed restrained last night. She sang pleasantly, but never overwhelmingly. I know she can sing Armida fearlessly because she did so on her "Bel Canto" album in 2002. Has time taken its toll? Probably not, that was only 8 years ago. So what was it?
Quite possibly a lack of inspiration from the conductor and director. Mary Zimmerman's production was largely uninteresting to look at and bordered at being a farce. The only thing that didn't seem to be made cheaply were the costumes, beautifully designed by Richard Hudson. Knights wore shiny silver armor draped with red fabric and the commanders wore long and elegant black suits seamed with bright red. The Act II ballet was entertainingly choreographed by Graciela Daniele in her Met debut, and she successfully made the chorus members 'move'. Does Ms. Zimmerman actually like opera? Certain props from the set looked like they were from a child's playpen, and the white rotunda wall encircling the action was the most boring stationary set-piece I've ever seen. The blocking was uneventful. I simply don't understand how such a magical opera, one with limitless Romantic possibilities, can turn into Sesame Street.
Understandably so, the conductor Riccardo Frizza seemed uninspired. He led a solid performance, though didn't stand out for any strong interpretive choices.
The audience's body language and applause throughout the evening seemed lackadaisical. I heard a few scoffs at the production, and at the curtain call the 'boos' roared out. This time I must admit, I wanted to join them.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Countertenors Rule the Night

This was only my second time at City Opera and my first time seeing a live Handel opera. Though Partenope (dating from 1730) is a Baroque opera comprised of the sometimes monotonous recitative/aria form, Friday night's performance was luxuriously sung and entertainingly directed. Two of the roles were written for castrati (emasculated men who maintained their high voice after puberty), though since castrating men is no long in vogue, trained countertenors now sing these parts. The voices of the castrati were said to be sublime, combining the elegance of women with the forcefulness of men. In 1957 Harold Schonberg wrote that "the castrati, and apparently all other singers of the day, had a technique that would be impossible to duplicate... no harder music exists for singers." Who can possibly know if that is actually true? Unfortunately, the only castrato to make a solo sound recording was Alessandro Moreschi, the last Papal castrato, who died in 1922. Granted the recording quality is not great, but his choir trained voice is evidently nothing remotely representative of the pop star icons that enchanted opera houses for centuries. Still worth a listen.

Given that we'll never know what the most famous castrati sounded like, on Friday night the countertenors Anthony Roth Constanzo and Iestyn Davies sang to the best of my imagination just like them. Mr. Davies (playing Arsace), is a fast-rising British countertenor and Mr. Constanzo (playing Armindo), is his American counterpart. Mr. Davies's voice is warm and powerful, with unending and tasteful musicality. His projection reminded me of the commanding mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Mr. Constanzo's voice is much lighter, and floated the melody beautifully. Every now and then he unleashed the power, but most of the time restrained his dynamics and size to better serve the music. His small physique was exploited wonderfully by the director, who played on the irony that his part was a brave prince. Instead of using a sword during the battle scene in Act II, he took off his glove and threw it at the enemy, promptly scurrying away.

With such a stilted plot, Handel operas have become the perfect match for experimental and liberal productions. Even though Partenope is an opera seria, an imaginative director can easily make comedy out of the libretto while staying truthful to the music. Francisco Negrin's production was light, satirical and entertaining throughout. Christian Curnyn led an inspired orchestra and communicated seamlessly with the singers. Perhaps a Handel opera is not dramatic or real enough for the more famous opera houses of the world, and I will admit that I dozed off into a hypnotic slumber a few times, but no one can deny the raw energy or lyrical beauty found in Partenope and other Handel operas.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Madama Butterfly at City Opera

Last night I made my City Opera debut, attending a highly moving production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Without the larger budget of their neighbors, the Met Opera, Mark Lamos's production was understandably spare, yet no less colorful or emotionally effective. The David H. Koch Theatre is much smaller than its neighbor opera house, and has historically been troubled by uneven acoustics. The farther a singer moved upstage, the more his/her voice got lost in the rafters and the less audible they became. (Before recent renovations, supplementary microphones were often used). There were however, some added benefits in comparison to the Met. The seats were wider with much more leg room, student tickets are $12 instead of $25 and seem to be plentiful (therefore cheaper than going to the movies), and the orchestra pit projects much, much more sound.
The later was a huge benefit for Butterfly's full orchestration, receptively and passionately magnified by City Opera Music Director, George Manahan. Having never come close to being blown out of my seat by the Met Orchestra, the fortes took me by surprise as they filled the theatre with a kind of sound I only thought was possible during orchestral concerts. This grand beauty was too much for some singers- most notably Steven Harrison, who played Pinkerton. Covered up nearly every time he was accompanied by the orchestra, I was at first not sure if the orchestra was simply playing too loudly. After enough time of hearing everyone else with no problem, I was convinced Mr. Harrison's voice was just too small and airy for the grand role.
As Madama Butterfly, Shu-Ying Li sang from start to finish with a big, warm, round, and luscious voice. Being such a well-known opera, I could not avoid thinking back to recordings I prefer, but nonetheless Ms. Li without a doubt raised the bar of the cast. Nina Yoshida Nelsen sang an emotionally sharp and penetrating Suzuki.
The dramatic climax of Butterfly comes at the end, when the title character slits her own throat in front of her son and her long lost love, the just arrived Pinkerton. The music here is intensely moving, having no less of a sincere, overbearing or apocalyptic effect on an attentive audience than the best moments of Wagner. I left the theatre in a hurry and completely ravished.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Arts Beat Interview with 'Armida' Choreographer

Graciela Daniele, the choreographer of the upcoming production of Armida, talks to Arts Beat about choreographing for the Met. See article. A veteran Broadway choreographer, she seems to be having no trouble adjusting to Rossini's light and playful music. The director of this production is Mary Zimmerman, whose previous Met projects include Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula. Both were subject to mixed/negative reviews. On Monday night premieres Ms. Zimmerman's third attempt at a Met success.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Verdi Chops Are Tested by 'Traviata'

The New York Times chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini, talks about the past and present of Verdi conducting styles in his article, Verdi Chops Are Tested by 'Traviata'. Recently a hot topic of discussion following Leonard Slatkin's disastrous performance of La Traviata at the Met (see review bellow), Mr. Tommasini compares legendary recordings by Toscanini, Giulini and Kleiber.

End of the aria by the Financial Times

This very informative yet slightly depressing article, "End of the aria", talks about the economic state of opera companies around the world and their desperate measures to survive. In the US, dwindling private donations are the worry, while European companies are at least temporarily comforted by state funding.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Slatkin withdraws from Traviata

The conductor, Leonard Slatkin withdrew today from the remaining Traviata performances at the Met, citing that his artistic contribution does not coincide with the musical ideas of the ensemble. See article.

Singers let all the stops out!

Chances are that most people even remotely interested in opera have heard selections from Verdi’s La Traviata. The opera’s fame grows from its amalgam of romanticism and realism, an Italian trend depicting more explicit human emotions. Verdi transformed these emotions into some of the most heart wrenching and technically challenging vocal music in the repertoire. Violetta has been and continues to be a calling card for the best sopranos of the generation. Equally so are the roles of Alfredo and his father, Giorgio Germont. These three leads demand not only the technically best but also the dramatically superior. The role of Violetta is so special because it is constantly open to different interpretations. In the famous Zeffirelli film, Teresa Stratas portrayed Violetta as introverted and emotionally unstable, with at times almost speech-like singing. At the 2005 Salzburg Festival, Anna Netrebko turned the role into a warm, sexy, and powerful woman. The list goes on…

In the current production at the Met that opened on Monday (also by Zeffirelli), the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu was intent on doing something new. She used rubato to its maximum capacity, rarely singing in strict meter, and enunciated everything with perfect diction, sounding like a native Italian speaker. On a number of occasions she held her final note for a second after the orchestra had already cut off, maximizing the drama. Most importantly, her interpretive choices led to more musicality in places I hadn’t heard before. The audience absolutely loved her and exploded with cheers during her curtain call.

Making his Met Debut was the dashing tenor from New Jersey, James Valenti. His voice is not as big as some of the tenors who have championed Alfredo in the past, but his lyrical sound has just as much conviction and was never lacking in Italian style. Like Ms. Gheorghiu, he used rubato as a means of maximizing expression. The audience adored his singing and oh so handsome looks.

The veteran baritone, Thomas Hampson sang his calling card role Giorgio Germont like he was born to. He filled the hall with a big sensual sound, and seemed to feed off the energy of Ms. Gheorghiu and Mr. Valenti. I know I’ve only been at this for a year or so, but the singing last night was so beautiful that it made me tear up and loose my breath more than once.

I hate to dwell on the unfortunate, but for a complete review I must discuss the conductor, Leonard Slatkin. To start, American classical music owes a debt to him for championing new music, bringing the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra up in the world, and leading the National Symphony Orchestra in DC for over a decade. Here however, he was a mess. Unfamiliar with the music, his plan was to feed off the experienced singers for interpretation. The result was a pit totally unconnected to the stage. “I have seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and a cast at the Met,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review for The New York Times. Come on! Why accept the engagement if your idea is simply to follow? Given his performance, his applause was surprisingly restrained. There were only a few boos.

Forced to survive on their own, without inspiration from the orchestra, Ms. Gheorghiu, Mr. Valenti, and Mr. Hampson thrived. They raised the bar for the next generation of singers, and reminded me of the beauty that humans are capable of producing.