Verdi’s Otello

Ever have one of those moments where an opera you never paid an unusual amount of attention to before suddenly becomes more interesting? I had one of those this week with Verdi’s Otello. I have a ticket to see it on the 10th, and though I own both CD and DVD versions of this opera, it never really transfixed me. But I listened the other day to the CD version that I have (Domingo, Ricciarelli, Diaz at La Scala) and it became apparent that there was a lot of it that I somehow failed to really register before – most of the ensembles, for instance.

This impression was reinforced by a library DVD of a Met performance from 1995 with the ubiquitous Mr. Domingo in the title role, looking like he was dipped in deck stain beforehand – which has the effect not of making him look African, but of making him look like a white guy who was dipped in deck stain – and Renée Fleming singing Desdemona and James Morris as Iago (also: I kept registering the unusual mellifluousness of the tenor singing Cassio and I just looked to see who it was – Richard Croft! no wonder. The wig disguised him.) I am not a fan of the visual aspects of Fleming’s acting in this case – there is much cocking of her head in sweet puzzlement early on, and a lot of whimpering and cringing later – but if you shut your eyes, she’s pretty fantastic. I was listening with headphones instead of on the speakers, and this may be an artifact of my headphones or it may be the audio on the DVD, but the orchestra was more forward than on my CD recording, and this made a real difference for me. The whole thing jumped into focus.

I wonder if I’ll have to fake a New York accent…

2015-09-28 15.55.17This is a picture of the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall in the middle of a Monday afternoon. (Never mind the part of my thumb visible to the bottom left; that part of the image is not important.) I was there because I decided that it would be interesting to volunteer as a tour guide, and the new volunteers were being taken through the tour route, as prelude to further training. Unlike at Lincoln Center, you don’t have to pay (!) to be a volunteer at Carnegie Hall, so I’m out only subway fare and time. And one has been told that one occasionally might score some free tickets.

We will see how this goes. I have a lot of experience vis-a-vis conveying certain specific points of information in an entertaining way in less than an hour to people with varying levels of interest, but it’s been a long time since I’ve worn a name badge.

Donizetti – Anna Bolena / Metropolitan Opera 9-26-15

David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena resembles his Maria Stuarda: there is a lot of gray and dull brown and white, with splashes of bright red. The red is hard to miss. Anna is wearing it for a while, and then at the beginning of Act II the red has moved to the bed in the room where Anna and Giovanna have their conversation, and by the time Giovanna is pleading with Henry (for consistency’s sake, I suppose I should refer to him as Enrico, but I can type Henry more times in a row without mistakes, so Henry he is) for Anna’s life she (Giovanna) is wearing a red dress, and the last time we see Anna she is wearing white – if red means you are the focus of Henry’s attention, for good or bad, Anna has escaped. The royal buck has been passed.

read the rest

Anna Prohaska – Sirène

51BspUnri6L Like Prohaska’s more recent recital disc, Behind the Lines, this one, recorded in 2010, is a collection of songs from a wide variety of time periods and in several languages, held together by theme. In this case, the theme is the figure of the siren. (Also, some day, I would like to see a soprano not sport five different come-hither looks in the album booklet. I’m sure it is possible. Actually, I know it is – I have a Handel recital CD on the cover of which Maria Bayo is wearing a woolly turtleneck and looking merely friendly; it can be done. But anyway.)

read the rest

Mostly Bach But Also Some Schumann: Joshua Bell, Andrew Manze, and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra 8-18-15

The first item on the program of Tuesday’s concert was Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, which, like the Schumann symphony after the intermission, used the full orchestra; a smaller set of musicians remained to accompany violinist Joshua Bell for the second item, Bach’s violin concerto in E major, BWV 1042, which Bell directed himself.

read the rest

Roberta Invernizzi and Craig Marchitelli – La Bella Più Bella

GCD_922902_cover_HD Another day, another early baroque song recital. This one is by Roberta Invernizzi, whose Handel and Vivaldi stylings we are all probably already familiar with. (Right? RIGHT?)

This collection of baroque songs for soprano and lute doesn’t have the manic bravura of some of Invernizzi’s opera aria performances – but then again, it’s not that kind of music. Probably the challenge with a recital like this is to introduce enough variety into the programming and enough subtlety into the performance to bring out the contrasts among these early seventeenth-century selections.

Invernizzi and lutenist Craig Marchitelli succeed in doing so. Many of these songs are miniature cantatas, with dramatic shifts of mood and tone, e.g. Giacomo Carissimi’s “piangete, aure, piangete” or several of the Barbara Strozzi selections. There are also some neat contrasts between pieces – the tone lightens with track five, “della porta d’oriente,” for example, and there are are a number of shifts between delicate and introspective songs and pieces that feel more popular in tone, or – alternately – a bit more sturm und drang (autocorrect: did you mean “strum and dang”?* Actually, since there is a lute and it’s very good, yes, in a way, but leave it alone please) like Strozzi’s “udite, amanti”.

Invernizzi is completely in her element here in terms of style, sound and vividness of expression; I also enjoyed hearing the lowest notes of her voice, e.g. at the end of the aforementioned “udite, amanti”. The recital also includes some solo pieces for lute, both brief little interludes and one or two longer and more dramatic items like track 10, a toccata by Kapsberger. This is one of those albums that sucks you in before you even realize what has happened.

*”Strum and dang” also refers to the less well known country-western version of the German Sturm und Drang.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Damrau, Villazón, Prohaska, Selig / Nézet-Séguin

page_1_thumb_largeThis live recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin follows those of Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni, the latter of which I bought because Joyce DiDonato was in it, and the former because why the hell not, and also Miah Persson. Both of those proved to be mixed bags. So is this one. There is some overlap of casts, but the only singer common to all three is Rolando Villazón, which choice – well, as they say, nobody likes it, but it keeps happening.

read the rest

Weekend Dead Soprano Bulletin

So, following up on my Maria Callas experience earlier this week, I made some use of that stupid free trial of Apple’s subscription service (I have also enjoyed the odd Patricia Petibon album and some Fauré, but I swear, I’m going to wean myself off this thing by the time the trial period ends) to listen to a few recordings of Renata Tebaldi. She sang a lot of Verdi, which is fine by me, but also Puccini and a lot of other verismo stuff that that I have little taste for.

510s0gE4UsL._SS280I found a collection of bits of opera recordings of hers from the 1950s – some Verdi, some Puccini, and some other things that I had never listened to, e.g. excerpts from Adriana Lecouvreur and La Wally both of which operas are I suspect not as much in fashion as they were a generation or two ago. Possibly there is a good reason for this. (Some things do remain in fashion, however. Between Tebaldi and my Sondra Radvanovsky Verdi CD, which would be worn out by now if CDs and/or digital files could wear out, I have certain sections of La Forza del Destino nearly committed to memory at this point. I think that Ms. Radvanovsky needs to record a few more recitals, yes?)

Tebaldi doesn’t have Callas’s take-no-prisoners approach to either music or drama. That said, this collection of excerpts does offer a sense of what die-hard fans of older recordings are talking about when they refer to the style or standard of opera performance of the 1950s and 60s. There is something about this that sounds different than very recent performances of this material, though I would be hard pressed to articulate precisely what.

Which raises another question – if there truly was some kind of golden age for certain types of opera so many decades ago, when did it end? Most of the singers associated with that time had retired by the 1970s – perhaps then. Or is this just a simple case of rolling nostalgia, and there are folks out there who talk up the performances of the 1980s?

That said, I will now be returning to modern recordings in which the orchestra does not sound like mush

I spent yesterday afternoon alternately fainting from the heat and listening to a recital from the 2015 Schwetzinger Festival by Christiane Karg and the ensemble Arcangelo, which I downloaded a while back and forgot about. It’s a pleasant mixture of Handel’s Nine German Arias and some Bach and Buxtehude concertos. I hadn’t heard the Handel in a while, and what stood out to me was the clarity and delicacy of the ensemble – or maybe it’s just hearing a different recording of these that did it. I don’t know. Karg’s performance offered some nice interpretive touches too, e.g. the energy, almost urgency of “Das Zitternde Glänzen.”

And then I did something I do not normally do: I listened to a Maria Callas recording. I have several, and they don’t see a lot of action. I think there is something in me that is deeply suspicious of a soprano who appears not to have liked Mozart (I remember one modern reviewer discussing a recording of hers in positive terms, but noting that she sang only what she liked, and much of what she liked was “junk like Tosca and Lucia.”) There is also something me that is deeply suspicious of the whole adulation of dead sopranos thing. Every time I read an older critic complaining that singers of the 1950s and 60s were profoundly superior to those performing now I just think – dude (it is usually but not always a dude), you were young then. Opera was new and exciting for you. And you got used to a certain style of performance. We folks under 40 will probably be saying the same thing about current performers decades from now.

But as far as Maria Callas is concerned, the thing is, in the 1950s at least, girlfriend could sing. The recording I listened to was one of Cherubini’s Medea, recorded live in Dallas in 1958. It’s got all the issues of something recorded live in Dallas in 1958 – that is to say, it sounds like I have cotton balls in my ears and someone has turned on the shower. Even so, Callas’s complete dramatic commitment shines through, and I admit, I find her voice interesting. Not a voice I think I could listen to for hours on end without developing a headache, but interesting. And having Jon Vickers and Teresa Berganza in the cast too doesn’t hurt either.

Emerson String Quartet / Alice Tully Hall 8-3-15

Have you ever worried on entering a concert hall that your perfectly good ticket will be rejected for no reason? This actually happened to me yesterday – sort of, anyway.

I got an email from the Mostly Mozart Festival late yesterday afternoon informing everyone who had tickets for the evening’s concert that there was a pre-concert recital at 6:30, at which the Emerson Quartet would perform one of Haydn’s Op. 76 string quartets. Have you ever seen that movie Run, Lola, Run? (I think in German it’s Lola rennt). Anyway, my trip from my house to Alice Tully Hall which began slightly after 5:40 resembled that movie, in that there was some running – this is why we wear Converse to concerts, and not high heels – but it was mostly just sitting in the subway looking jumpy and then darting and weaving around people in Manhattan. So if there was a 1998 German movie about my experience, it would be probably called Ohrwurm eilt and other than my dramatic dash down the subway steps and explosion through the closing doors of an E train, it would probably actually be kind of boring.

read the rest

Strauss – Daphne / Lincoln Center Festival 7-18-15

I went to see a concert performance of Strauss’s one-act opera Daphne last night, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, directed by Franz Welser-Möst, and a series of soloists. I’d never seen – or, to be honest, ever even heard of this opera before, but what the hell, right?

This is one of those “Apollo and Dionysos”-themed things that writers and artists in the late 19th and early twentieth century were so fond of writing about – basically, if my memory of that college Literature and Arts B survey from 1999 is correct, there is a conflict and a balance between the Apollonian (the beauty of order and reason) and the Dionysian (wildness, irrationality, wine, love and so on). They are as distinct and mutually dependent as day and night. The plot of this opera is built around this idea, and around that story we all know about the young woman Daphne who is pursued by Apollo and gets turned into a laurel tree.

The story here is a little different than the tale as told by Ovid. (There are quite a few versions of the story; the librettist, Joseph Gregor, did not come up with what follows on his own.) Daphne is still woodsy and doesn’t want a boyfriend, but here she has a recorder-playing childhood buddy named Leukippos who has fallen in love with her and Apollo does not pursue her because he has been clipped by the arrow of a miffed Eros. He just sort of shows up for some reason and decides that he and Daphne would be great together, because they like some of the same things, like sunshine.

It’s the evening of the festival of Dionysos, and Daphne does not want to go. She has rejected both the disguised Apollo and the earnest Leukippos, but during the festival Leukippos, now also in disguise, gives her a sip of wine. Apollo flips his shit, he and Leukippos get into a fight, with the young man claiming that drinking wine at the festival has turned him into Dionysos himself, and Apollo loses his temper and zaps the poor kid with a lightening bolt.

Daphne performs her final aria in what one can only assume is a sort of smoking blast crater, in which she explains that she realizes this was all her fault (because of course it is, what with her being in charge of and responsible for other people’s behav– oh, wait, no it isn’t) and she is very sorry. And then Apollo turns her into a laurel tree.

The singing was generally strong. Nancy Maultsby as Daphne’s mother Gaea, started out wobbly in what is an alarmingly low alto part; Andreas Schager was a dramatic and passionate Apollo – he was was one of the highlights for me. Daphne was sung by soprano Regine Hangler, who sounded appropriately girlish, but not small. Her voice had a powerful bright edge; most of the time, when soaring above the orchestra was called for, she soared. The last bit of the opera, where Daphne is turning into a tree (and the libretto has her keep talking long after she should stop, what with having ceased to be a person – I mean, explaining that you are now a symbol is probably not strictly necessary, especially when you’re a tree, and also, opera audiences know about symbols) contains a lot of high floaty business, and she sounded a little pinched now and then, but on the whole I was impressed.

Strauss being Strauss, the orchestral music alone is worth the price of admission – nice touches included the metallic-sounding violin representation of Daphne’s leaves at the end when she has turned into a tree, and a section earlier on where a solo violin is interacting with the soprano part. I wouldn’t mind hearing more concert performances of Strauss.

Finally, the middle name of one of the singers portraying shepherds is “Speedo.” I tried several times to find a way to work this detail into the above discussion, but I couldn’t. So there it is at the end.

Deep Thoughts About Ticket Retrieval

Over the past few days Lincoln Center has sent me a series of alarming emails about the length of the will-call line for tonight’s concert – highly unusual number of will-call tickets, get there an hour early, etc. etc. Even though my ticket was mailed to me and I have it.

There is definitely a line inside, but it’s still just a line. It’s not a scrum, or a mob, or a roiling sea of shrieking symphony patrons. That said, it’s only 6:35. Maybe the scrum comes later.

While we wait, let us consider what might be happening.

1. Mix-up with that MC Hawking song so instead of “all my shootings be drive bys” it’s “all my tickets be will call.”

2. Willy Wonka ticket machine that belches out the tickets broke, so all purchases within the past three weeks necessarily will-call b/c Oompa Loompas need time to hand-write tickets.

3. Cruise ship.

4. Only one person working counter; everyone else has fucked off to the beach.

5. That weird thing with the fountain happened again.

6. Welser-Möst claque up to its usual tricks.

7. The concert is actually oversold; they’re looking for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a voucher for future opera.


Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Alice Tully Hall 7-15-15

Sometimes I wonder if chamber music isn’t a bit like art songs – it loses its force a bit when performed in a large concert hall (as opposed to a little space where the piano makes your molars vibrate). I usually wonder this at the beginning of chamber music concerts and have entirely forgotten about it by the end, which is what happened yesterday.

There were three works on the program, the last of which, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, I missed bits of because I started thinking about the fact that I would have to move my car so as not to fall afoul of the street cleaners the next morning, and got into a bit of GOD DAMN FUCKING CAR I HATE THAT CAR mode that was difficult to snap myself out of. But the first two pieces, Mozart’s violin sonata in B-Flat major K. 378 and Beethoven’s piano trio Op. 70, no. 2, had my entire attention the whole time. Particularly the pianist, Juho Pohjonen, who was really something extraordinary. My note taking skills fail me a bit on details here – I remember the little flashes of the “trout” theme in the Andantino of the Schubert, for example, and the dialogue with the violin in the Mozart, and – well, all of the Beethoven; more of that in a minute. Anyhow, that guy can play that piano. He doesn’t have any albums out yet that I could find, but I suspect he will soon.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the first half of the program is how the first piece set up the second. The Mozart, performed by Erin Keefe on violin and the aforementioned Juho Pohjonen was light and engaging, particularly the last two movements – it was a good preparation for the Beethoven trio, which was much heavier and richer. With this one, you really got a sense of how a trio of musicians can fit together as precisely as puzzle pieces, even though the puzzle is constantly moving. The rapport among this ensemble was excellent. The music seemed to be anchored by the piano and cello (Jakob Koranyi), though the violinist (Paul Huang), was no slouch either. I particularly enjoyed the little key shifts at the end of the second movement.

Also, have you ever noticed how sometimes some really weird shit goes down in Beethoven’s chamber music? It’s like:

Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]

Listener: [Beethoven!!]

Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]

Listener: [Beethoven!!] [mind wanders for an instant as someone unwraps a cough drop]

Sonata: [checks over shoulder to see if anyone is watching and then bolts for modernity, skids around corner, kicking up a shower of key changes]

Listener: What the –

Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]

Listener: You were –

Sonata: No I wasn’t. Here, have a cadenza.

Listener: Beethoven!!

Deep thoughts on watching the bonus from the Salzburg DVD of Schubert’s Fierrabras

1. When the director explains that there is no “concept” and then proceeds to explain the concept, which is basically a literal depiction that would have been recognizable to the opera’s initial audience: NOT HAVING A “CONCEPT” IS STILL A CONCEPT. You can’t perform something without interpreting it. That’s not how it works. I suppose here we are operating on that dangerous knife’s edge between concept and “concept.” Or concept and “concept” and Konzept.*

2. You know the libretto is bad when those in charge freely admit that a) they had to re-write bits of it so as to avoid confusing the audience and b) the cast routinely cuts up over the dialogue during rehearsals and have to work very hard to keep it together.

3. That said, I find that I don’t mind a certain amount of yelling in German in my operas.

4. This is off topic, but why does Florinda faint so much? Once when she gets into the tower and I think there’s another point when someone says “consciousness has left her” or something like that. Maybe that palace has some kind of carbon monoxide problem. Or maybe the librettist figured that since she goes around yelling (in German) and brandishing a weapon and at one point it’s even implied that she took out a guard getting into that tower, it would be best to reassure the (original 19th century) audience that she doesn’t do this sort of thing all the time.

5. I think I’ve had it with Schubert operas for a while. Dude was not cut out to be an opera composer. The music is great, but it keeps getting dragged underwater and getting the shit kicked out of it by the plot.

*It’s a Regie knife. It has the sort of edge that three things can balance between. Among. Whatever.

New Adventures in Technology

I don’t use a lot of – well, any – streaming music services. I have more fun when I know what I have absorbed and what I haven’t, and the best way for me to do that is to buy (or, ah, otherwise permanently acquire) music and listen to it over and over as necessary. There’s something about having a well-defined music collection that I like. I know where it is, I know what’s in it and what’s not. For any given recording, I can tell you when I got it and why and what I like about it. The idea of listening to nothing but streaming music elicits an odd kind of stress reaction in me – unless I took copious notes, I would have no certain knowledge of what I’d listened to. And if I really enjoy a recording, I prefer to have it in my hot little hands so I can still listen to it if, you know, the internet goes out or I end up broke and I have to cancel things like streaming music subscriptions. Maybe it’s years of academic training, or just temperament: I feel happiest when I know what I know and what I don’t.

But Apple is offering this free trial of their streaming service, so I decided to try it. Also, I was curious how it would treat classical music. 2015-07-01 20.43.03 When you first open that part of the music app, you get an opportunity to choose your favorite genres. There were a few more options than visible in this picture – I think I’d already deleted Christian Rock and Hits and a few of the more poppy genres at this point. I do occasionally listen to things other than classical, but I wanted to keep it simple. (Also, I suppose I had better save the rant about condensing centuries of symphonies, chamber music, operas, sacred music, art songs, etc. etc. into a single genre. I mean, I would have all of those and more, and then one other category called “twentieth-century songs with a relatively simple chord progression that last about four minutes” and that would include 80% of that other stuff. This is why I am not currently employed as a designer of streaming music applications.)

Narrowing down the “artist” options took a while. Like many programs designed for pop music, this one doesn’t distinguish between composers and performers as artists. Fine, but as I think Cat once said to Lister when he read the baked potato timer rather than the impact warning sensor by mistake, things like this make us look like we don’t know what we’re doing.

2015-07-01 20.44.27 2015-07-01 20.44.58 2015-07-01 20.45.17Also, who the fuck are “The Piano Guys”?* But as you can see by the last of those three images above, it appeared that I had communicated what I wanted. So I went to see what Apple recommended.

2015-07-01 20.45.48 2015-07-01 20.46.20

I like R.E.M and the Clash as much as the next person, but I was hoping for a little more focus. (Remember that time a student came to office hours to talk about her quiz average and I thought we were going to talk about her quiz average, but I ended up hearing about how the devil didn’t want her to finish school and she showed me her surgical scars from ovarian cyst removal? It was like that, except less so, and I didn’t have to worry about whether the door was closed.) I fooled around a little more to see what was listed under recent releases, mixes and so on and had more luck. I had a look at a playlist of baroque trio sonatas, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a mix of whole pieces – they kept each sonata together rather than jumbling up different movements of different things, which was what I admit I expected. And there was one album available that I’d been considering buying, a recent recording of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos (my current one is from the 60s and while good, it’s kind of  . . . old school). Searching for specific artists and recordings turned up better material, too.

Still, despite the self-evident seductions of options like “Alice Coote Radio,”** I’m not sure a subscription would be worth it for me, even though the try-before-you-buy aspect is attractive. (I admit, I got to thinking that I would like to do my own radio station. It would be called Radio Free Earworm and it would consist entirely of things that I like, sometimes on loops, interspersed with me reading selections from seventeenth-century colonial records. I would put Finn on to do the overnights, as the sounds of a small happy dog sleeping are rather soothing if you like dogs.)


*Don’t worry, I googled.

**For any artist, you can select an “[insert artist here] Radio” option that gives you a mix of tracks by that artist.

Music for the Expression of Mild Frustration

One of the interesting details about life in the United States is that different states have different registration requirements for cars. So, if you happened to buy a car, in say, Mississippi, all you had to do initially was attach one (1) license plate to the back. But if you move that car to, say, New York State, you have to re-register the car AND you need two (2) license plates, one on the front and one on the back. The interesting thing about cars purchased in Mississippi, however, is that they do not come equipped with front license plate mounts. Thus the unsuspecting motorist may all too easily find that she has one more license plate than she has legal places to stick it.

The absence of a front license plate mount is nothing that a two hour trip to the Honda dealership in Jamaica (Jamaica, Queens – not the other one) can’t solve. But then have you ever attached one these things to your bumper? It’s conceptually simple – there are holes for a little set of screws to go through already in the bumper, and the plate mount comes with a little set of brackets that snap in place to help the screws get purchase – but in practical terms more difficult. The holes are hard to find, the screws do not want to go in the holes, one is sitting there on the ground on the street in the sun contorting one’s neck around to get a good look at where those damn holes got to and why won’t it JUST GO IN THERE and then finally you get the damn thing on and what do you discover? THE HOLES IN THE PLATE DON’T MATCH THE HOLES IN THE MOUNT SO YOU CAN’T GET THE SCREWS IN TO ATTACH THE PLATE. JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.

This is why we have zip-ties, I guess:

2015-06-26 13.11.16 HDR

So then you roll redneck-style to the auto shop to get your inspection sticker and also to see if they can maybe fix this little license plate situation for you.

And you sing this all the way. Not that my car is actually a piece of shit. It’s a gently used and well-maintained Honda Civic, which means it’s safe, reliable, fuel-efficient and boring, which is exactly how I like my cars. But I couldn’t come up with any vehicle-related opera moments that seemed appropriate.

I mean, there’s a lot of arias about boats, but those are always metaphorical, you know? There’s a boat in the storm, and you’re the boat, and you have to ride out the storm, or trust your pilot, or whatever. There’s never an aria about, you know, “this f^&%ing boat, I can’t believe this boat, why does the f&^&ing Prince of Parma or whatever require me to have front and back plates on this f##%%king thing, son of a bitch license plates, I don’t even care if there IS a storm, I just want to not get a f^&*ing ticket because my boat in this storm is not displaying its f#$%*ing tags correctly,” you know?