Well, don’t I feel dumb. A while back I ordered an “unofficial” recoding of Don Carlos from one of the usual places, because Sondra Radvanovsky was singing Elisabetta and I wanted to hear it. When I got it, I was disappointed when the first disc began with the San Yuste scene (“Carlo il somno imperatore”). I thought Act I was missing, because although I knew there were various longer and shorter versions of this opera with different sections added, removed or revised, I had never yet heard one that began at that point of the story. So, I wrote a polite email and they sent me another copy of the recording. This one was identical to the first. So I wrote another polite email and they offered to send me something else instead. I figured their recording was just missing a piece and that was that, so I accepted a bootleg of Norma also involving Sondra Radanovsky in its place. Because of the sort of operation this is, I didn’t have to return either iteration of Don Carlos.
Then, this morning, I had one of those “hm, I wonder” moments and I discovered that there is in fact a version of Don Carlos that omits Act I and begins with the San Yuste scene, and it was this truncated version that the San Diego opera elected to perform back in 2003. It’s a rarity in some sense, I guess, because I have never before either on CD or in an opera house encountered the opera in this particular form. After all, as these things go, Act I is a pretty good act. I rather like the Carlos/ Elisabetta duet – in fact, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Radvanovsky letting fly Elisabetta’s excited high notes toward the end.
So, I suppose we can say that I have learned something. We could also say, however, that I have probably convinced the customer service email person at PremiereOpera that I’m either an idiot or wicked sneaky – but fortunately, that is all in the past now and I can go and listen to my new recording of Norma. Ita sul colle, Druidi, etc. etc.
The Met’s new production of Verdi’s Otello makes use of their projection system; the first image on the stage is that of the stormy sea as the people of Cyprus wait for Otello’s ship. These waves reappear in Act IV – stormy seas, stormy feelings, forces of nature, unable to control, etc. etc. The stage set-up is simple, a reflective V that sometimes echoes the waves, sometimes looks merely like reflective metal, but not mirrors – it’s a much dimmer, distorted reflection. There is also a series of clear plastic slices of wall with halls and stairs inside that resemble nothing so much as narrow versions of those glassed-in waiting rooms on train platforms, complete with moderate fog on the inside. They slide around to create the spaces of the palace, garden, bedroom, and so on. Near the end of Act II, they close in for Otello and Iago’s duet, transforming a public area into a bedroom with the same bed used for Desdemona’s room in Act IV – it creates an intimate space for Iago to manipulate Otello about an equally intimate matter. These plastic wall slices also make the lighting more obvious – they glow chilly blue for Iago’s “credo” monologue and turn to red or yellow as Otello plots vengeance. But they’re gone entirely for the last act, in which Desdemona’s bed, prie-dieu and a few chairs are placed alone – looking rather small and vulnerable, much like Desdemona herself – in that larger open space.
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 was listening to Frau R’s Portraits CD this afternoon. It made me think of the first recital recording of hers I heard – by the end, the intensity of it left me with a pleasant feeling of exhaustion. This recording has the same quality; you get to the end with an awareness of the distance you traveled between the Schubert songs and the Wolf and Strauss. Also, those few bars in “Gretchen am Spinnrade” at about 1.30 (“sein hoher Gang . . .”) where she and Martineau draw out the tempo just a little with the growing drama in the text are one of the best moments in this. I think my colleagues can hear my music through the office walls – I know I can hear theirs sometimes – so my colleague who likes indie rock and alt-country was subjected to about ten minutes of Gretchen on a loop, for which I absolutely refuse to apologize.
And thanks to my mom, a massive box of Haydn string quartets turned up on my doorstep yesterday, along with a toy for Finn. So Finn chewed on his new ball and I listened to Haydn, which for all practical purposes I can do indefinitely; this is probably a good thing, because Haydn wrote 19 CDs worth of string quartets and I haven’t been in the mood for sitting down and listening to much opera lately. This is indicated by the fact that I watched the Decker production of Verdi’s Otello last weekend, and my sole critical reaction was that it seems that Venice was populated primarily by Lord and Lady Whiteadder.
I was supposed to be in Budapest this weekend, but we had an abrupt change of plans, so we ended up going to the opera instead. (What else you going to do on a Sunday night, right?) We saw Il Trovatore at the state opera. Good points: small opera house. I like small opera houses. You think you’re up in the Family Circle, but in terms of stage distance, you’re in the Grand Tier. The sound is more intimate, and in this case I was hearing individual members of the chorus, which was interesting. Bad points: rather unimaginative production, moving at times into awkward (at various points in the story large groups of people – soldiers, gypsies – have to funnel through small apertures, and it gets a bit awkward. Also, the chorus was doing this weird hand-waving thing during that famous anvil chorus, or whatever it is. And the guy singing the part of the Count de Luna had the most annoying voice – vibrato that was an entire step if it was anything, and a few weird little clicks and odd things in it too. But the tenor (Manrico) was pretty ok, and indeed at time seemed to be pulling things along by sheer force of will. And the woman singing Leonora had a voice that was nice, most of the time, although it took some arm-twisting on her part to make it hit the top notes. And I kept getting distracted by the supertitles. They were in both Czech and English, one on top of the other, and I kept trying to figure out what corresponded to what. I remember noticing the construction that means “the more [noun verbs], the more [different noun different verbs]” in English, and it seems that vocatives often end in an ‘o’ but I did have an opera to watch, after all.
And I just discovered that they’re doing Rusalka on the 26th, which I would have liked to hear, but we already had tickets for a different concert. I feel like I have not engineered this vacation with the sort of satisfactory precision that I have done with vacations past. On the other hand, we did have some fun in the pretty much empty museum of Czech baroque art the other day, and along with their beer, the Czechs make some top-notch potato chips. Also: this Christmas market thing, with glühwein and sweets and children – and a few adults – gleefully devouring fried dough products as big as their faces: I approve. We should have these at home. (It’s a bit like the State Fair, but there’s hot wine and it’s winter and you can have fun figuring out what the signs say: I know the words now for potato, hot wine, almonds and tea.)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Mel Gibson directed Don Carlos? I raise the question because in this version, directed for the Theatre du Chatelet by Luc Bondy, there is a moment in Posa’s death scene where I’m pretty sure I heard drops of the fake blood, of which there is plenty, land on the floor. But I am going to assume that this was just an accident of microphone placement. (To answer my initial question: I suspect that the auto-da-fe scene would somehow become much longer than it normally is and they would kill Posa with a spiked mace rather than a gun. This would also take much longer than is customary.)
I was listening to an older recording of Don Carlos, one from the Théâtre du Châtelet from 1995 (Van Dam – José, not Jean-Claude – as Philip, Roberto Alagna as Carlos, Karita Mattila as Elisabeth, Hampson singing Posa, and Pappano conducting.)
I have never heard a rendition of this where Elisabeth’s big high notes in “de quels transports poignants” (text, in either French or Italian: “Ah!!”) are so bright and gleamy and seem to come as effortlessly as they do here for Mattila. It’s really kind of perfect, like Elisabeth’s poor happy little teenaged soul is just shining in the air there for a second or two. Also, Waltraud Meier (Eboli) cheats a bit on some of the ornaments in “au palais des fées” but that slower middle section of “o don fatal” was pretty magic. See also Posa’s death scene. Some day I will have listened to every extant recording of this opera, and if each of them has one or two moments like this that make them distinct, then the time will not have been misspent. Either that or I will have been institutionalized. One or the other.
Another thing I learned today: apparently in Finnish there is a word specifically for a car accident involving elk. This has nothing to do with Verdi, but I wanted to get it out there.
The Met’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff, by Robert Carsen, places the action in the 1950s or maybe very early 1960s. Falstaff’s inn is a hotel or club, with high, bare but glossy paneled walls (no windows) that enclose the Fat Knight’s room (crowded with dirty room service trolleys), the restaurant of the hotel, where the wives gather to have tea and compare their matching love letters, the smoking room where Falstaff receives Mistress Quickly and “Fontana” and, after Falstaff’s plunge from the window of the Ford house, a stable, complete with a real horse munching away at his real food, where Falstaff recovers from his unexpected immersion. The forest in Act III is the same panels set at angles so they funnel toward an open dark space at the back. All the “fairies” wear black cloaks and deer horns; the deer head/horns motif is repeated frequently throughout the opera.
I had never listened to Verdi’s Requiem mass before. But a local symphony orchestra (yes, there is one – no laughing in the back there) and our university chorus and some outside soloists they must’ve either threatened or bribed performed it on campus yesterday afternoon, and, well, I guess you go, right?
I listened to two versions of Verdi’s Falstaff this weekend. The first was a video from the ROH, filmed in 1999 and available on DVD, although I watched it via YouTube, sub-par sound and all, because sometimes that is just how it works out.
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Michelle Vilma (Eboli) also occasionally sounds a little harsh, for example in parts of the trio with Carlos and Posa and in bits of “au palais des fées.” Also I kept losing her in the Act IV Philip/Elizabeth/Eboli/Posa quartet, but that might have been a microphone placement issue rather than Vilma herself.
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There were a few things orchestra-wise that seemed odd to me, but in a neutral way, like the
accompanigment accompaniment (damn French getting all up in my spelling) to Phillip’s “elle ne m’aime pas” which if my ears do not deceive me involves not a solo cello but rather a whole section of cellos. Weird.
But on a brighter note, the clarinettist in the first part of Carlos and Elizabeth’s “O bien perdu” duet did a very pretty job. The clarinet is prominent through the first part of the duet, where Carlos is singing; when Elizabeth comes in with “O dieu clément” the pattern the clarinet had is taken up by the violins. The clarinet bit involves both duetting with the tenor and several series of repeated notes at transitions, all of which this clarinettist, whoever he or she was, did very elegantly and expressively.
This Opera Rara recording of Verdi’s Don Carlos is a mixed bag. I got it because I wanted an audio-only recording of the complete 1867 French version. As far as those two things are concerned, this recording’s credentials are impeccable. It is undeniably complete, clocking in at close to four hours. It is also unarguably in French. According to the booklet the principals are all Francophone, which is great, although the more subtle benefits of this are probably lost on me. But aside from its length and
Francophility Francophonitude Ph being in French, I am not sure that this performance is one to seek out on its own.
I was watching a DVD of an older Met production of Verdi’s Rigoletto earlier this week, one of their telecasts from the late 1970s. I haven’t listened to this opera much in general, and so when I got to Gilda’s aria “Gualtier Malde . . . caro nome chi il mio cor” about how she loves this guy who turns out to be the the Duke, I was sitting there racking my brains trying to figure out why it sounded so oddly familiar.
It took me a minute, but I figured it out.
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According to the booklet, the designer of this production, John Dexter, wanted to recreate the palette and general mood of the Venetian painter Giorgione, whose famous “The Tempest” was a kind of template (for the director) for the opera’s final scene, which takes place during a storm. I am not sure I am qualified to assess the success of this idea – I’ve never seen the painting in person and I think that the sets probably looked more impressive in the house than they do on 1970s videotape. The Duke’s palace looks like a palace; Rigoletto and Gilda live in a dungeony, catacomby sort of area with a lot of gratings; the inn is definitely and unambiguously an inn.
Rigoletto is one of those operas that I would not use to introduce someone to opera in a general way. This is not because there is anything wrong with it, but it does have the types of squishy areas as far as story goes that are (according to what I am told) often off-putting to folks who are not yet completely won over to the art form. (If I were going to introduce someone to opera, I’d give them Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. You can’t beat Mozart in terms of music, and the story is humorous and lively and makes sense from beginning to end. Then again, I know more than one person who got hooked not via a specific opera, but via excerpts, clips or bits of things, and only after a long parade of recital CDs and YouTube videos took the plunge and went whole hog. I believe we have had enough of idioms for this paragraph now.)
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And then there’s Jonas Kaufmann as Carlos, who is certainly also a reason to listen to this. His voice sounds deeper and more solid than some other Carloses I have heard; this Carlos is youthful and passionate, but he doesn’t give the character that “confused and in way over his head” vibe.
One of the first things that appears in my notes for this (after “has Carlos gone ice-fishing?” because of the scenery in that first bit) is “what a voice this guy has” followed shortly by “yowza” in connection with some of the phrasing in Carlos’s bit where he’s going on about his “casto amor.”
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In terms of concept this production did not seem radically different from other productions of this opera that I have seen. But the acting and stage direction do do something rather sweet and human and emphasize that Carlos and Elisabeth love each other in that elevated Verdian way, but they also want one another and crave the comfort of human contact. The two are about to snuggle up together on Carlos’s cloak when the chorus shows up in Act I to give them the news of the great change in plans; there are moments all through the opera where Elisabeth has her hands on Carlos’s shoulders or arms and then suddenly pulls back with this sort of “Merde! I’m touching him again!” look on her face; they consistently have their hands on one another during their big moments together, but it’s neither unalloyed lust nor a simple need for human connection – it’s somewhere between the two, and the fact that they can’t (for a variety of reasons) make it one or the other is fairly key to their whole unhappy situation.
This Don Carlos was broadcast from Salzburg back in August. Apparently it has been on and off YouTube ever since – I think the Salzburg people are probably fighting an uphill battle as far as that is concerned. But isn’t that Firefox widget that adds a ‘download’ option to YouTube videos really cool? I say this only as an unconnected observation, not because I have been downloading videos of Salzburg broadcasts.