Cher Public

The Quantification of the Diva: Part the Third

traviata_gheorghiuAnd now, cher public, let’s put today’s singers, the Contemporary Divas, under the microscope. How do they stack up?

Emotional Journey

Yes, there are (many) nights when she phones it in, but when Angela Gheorghiu decides to take the audience on an Emotional Journey, a queen could ask for no better tour guide.

Jay Caspian Kang: “From 6:42 on in this video, she really does morph into another being, someone who doesn’t quite follow the same laws of physics as the rest of us. Maybe a later version of these rankings could examine what exactly happens when the diva starts to get all incandescent and then starts fucking shit up? It’s like she just went up a level in Dungeons and Dragons.”


MD-STIMM-redAt any given time during a golden era there are perhaps four or five truly great voices; in our own less generously endowed epoch, Dolora Zajick reigns supreme as exemplar of Stimm.


MD-KUNST-yellowA generation’s definitive Kundry is by definition also its supreme practitioner of Kunst:  Waltraud Meier. (Note that in the course of this study we have observed the Kunstdiva in two somewhat different stages of her metamorphosis: standing immobile next to a grand piano, and crawling in a frenzy across a mirrored stage floor. The only immutable aspect of the Kunstdiva is her caftan.)

Iconic Moment

MD-ICON-DARK GREENJCK: “This should have been narrated by Scott Hamilton. It’s like watching Surya Bonaly do fifteen backflips in a row in Olympic competition, not giving a shit that the judges aren’t allowed to score them as legitimate jumps. On the last backflip, she catches a bit of an edge but holds…HOLDS! On! Also, 1:03 would’ve broken the scale for the pop divas hand gestures scale. Even Mariah would have run out of notes to point out!”

La Cieca replies, “Fan or no fan, you have to admit that Cecilia Bartoli has trademarked The Cenerentola Show. (La Cieca adores how the bootleg camera does its own merry jig in time to the diva’s “Sparkle, Neeley, sparkle!” body English.)

Cult Status

MD-CULT-ORANGEIt’s still a bit early in Joyce DiDonato‘s career to grant her full Cult Status, though this performance may well mark the turning point. She’s singing no differently (i.e., with uniform excellence) than she did before breaking her leg, but now she’s That Girl with Spunk.

Mr. Kang, who has delighted us so often at Free Darko, also may be heard tweeting at maxpower51.

  • La Valkyrietta

    As the Met is taking that ferry to La Spezia on Monday, and the Ligurian sea will turn into the Rhine, I feel this very scientific analysis of divas has ignored Stephanie. I guess the masses and the experts have preferred other extraordinary Divas, but Monday Stephie will be Fricka, and that means Diva with a capital D. Well, I hope so. Good luck to her.

    • Pelleas

      I also thought of Blythe immediately, especially in terms of Stimm.

      • La Cieca’s nominees are the ones the cher public voted on. There was not significant Blythe love in that poll.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    The NYT recently published a photo of the MET rehearsing for Das Rheingoild and in the auditorium there where more laptop and computer monitors glowing in the dark than in an Apple Store. Last night I had a dream about that photo and all the screens had changed to the home page of Interpretation: Get a life.

  • Gualtier M

    Not a lot of Natalie Dessay love on that graph. Frankly given Mme. Dessay’s reputation as a great singing actress one might think she would have scored higher on the “emotional journey” chart? Or do the cher publique find her too schticky and tricksily theatrical to be really moving? Also before her vocal injuries and operations, Natalie possessed quite a stimm. Her scores were on the bottom in each category except for cult status -- one would almost think she was Renee!

    • richard

      Well, she’s seems to be on the downside of her career and listeners often get frustrated with performances from a singer that are not as good as 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc.

      And so there is a kind of negative feedback for the singer, I wouldn’t go quite as far as to call it a backlash, but let’s say that people aren’t focusing on the tremendous Zerbinettas she did 10 years ago, but rather her latest work.

      The downside of a singer’s career is often problematic.

      Not to beat a horse that has not only been beaten to death on another thread but also pulverized, how do we regard singer’s in this phase of their career?

      Do we repeat the mantra, “oh she was wonderful ten years ago” while trying to swallow the less than tasty pill of her latest screech fest. Or do we say
      “enough”, I don’t think she should be doing this and I’m staying away.

      Obviously the range of reactions can very widely from one person’s viewpoint to the next.

      • I think that, generally speaking, if a singer is still actively performing, people will focus on her current state. This is compounded by the singer’s fame. Ironically, the singer is usually at the height of her fame as her singing begins to decline. It’s during the years that the singer is “coasting” on her fame that she will face the most brutal criticsm (though usually from the afficionados, not the general public). The afficionados will start to look at younger, less-known singers who are able to deliver the goods better but who don’t receive the same attention.

        A few years after a singer has retired, people eventually shift their focus to what made the singer great in the first place.

        • melisma catatonia

          Which is why Debbie didn’t make the cut, despite having one of the greatest voices of her generation. If we’d done this survey 10 years ago….

      • LittleMasterMiles

        This is why singers whose careers were cut short in their prime (I’m thinking of Tatiana Troyanos and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson) may be remembered as even greater than they were, simply because they suffered no carreer downside. At the very least, the tragedy of an early death can contribute to cult status.

        • It’s true. Bjoerling might not be quite so idolized if he had finsihed his career with several years of less-than-stellar singing.

        • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

          Of course it is worth remembering that both TT and LHL, and the likes of Lucia Popp and Arleen Auger, were in their mid-50s when they were taken from us. [And some of them had the odd crisis to overcome.] Miss Dessay is a good ten years younger than that. I think richard is right about current form (i.e. the down-side) affecting the poll where Dessay is concerned but at least, I suppose, she made the cut. Still, it might be akin to La Nilsson’s phlegmatic observation about wild ovations in late career: don’t forget, they’re applauding you for what you were.

        • Harry

          The point that certain singers may have ‘cult status’ because they died young may have validity in cases where their recorded output is scarce. Fritz Wunderlich is one to consider.
          On he other hand, Arleen Auger and Lucia Popp left a staggering number of wonderful recorded documents behind. Bjorling too, left a sizable amount if you include his recordings made in Sweden and in remarkable good sound, I might add.

          Does the length of a piece of string have to be pointed downwards, to measure its degree of quality… the real question?

        • SilvestriWoman

          I don’t find that a particularly fair comment. To be in one’s prime when in one’s 50s is not to be sniffed at… I can think of more than a few legendary sopranos who were on the decline well before the ages TT and LHL left this earth (Sills, Callas, Scotto, to name three). Troyanos, in particular, had been before the public for over 30 years. LHL did not enjoy as lengthy a career but, before she died, seemed to be only getting better. of how many 50-something female singers can that be said?

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        For the record, I never liked her ass.

      • Harry

        It is part of the old trick any fan or devotee audience, plays with itself. They firstly identify with some artist, then they naturally learn and anticipate ‘every histrionic device and action’ that an artist creates and uses. After a while monotony tends to set in as they compare too many different versions of the same aria or opera the singer has done.Things start appearing stale…..its time to start mocking and picking everything to pieces. As they secretly wish the artist could perform the same old magic tricks…….’be like they once was’ and prove the listener is also be miraculously young again, too.

        Proof of this: just be ‘unfortunately’ present at some old famous rockers’ concert as the geriatric members of the band play their old ‘stuff’. To a dis-interested observer it is something much more… A reflection on the stark race of Father Time…both sad and funny at the same time. Transfixed creatures anticipating and mentally mouthing every word lke a religious mantra.

        Now say after me…..”O patria mia”…. “In questa reggia”….”Casta diva”…

    • luvtennis

      I think a lot of folks feel cheated by Dessay.

      When she first came along, I thought she was a legend in the making. The voice and singing were still a bit unformed, but her virtuosity, her musical and visual daring boded something special.

      Then came the vocal operations. Then the interview that gave the impression (or misimpression) that La Dessay had some very deepseated contempt for opera and it’s performance history.

      So while she has a lot of fans among more or less casual opera goers, I don’t think she has too many advocates among the opera obsessives.

  • I don’t think I understand the concept of Kunst as well as I thought I did. I would have thought that Karita would rank higher in that category.

    • rapt

      I’m with you on this one, kashania, on the low rating of Karita here. And Renee higher than Natalie and Draculette? Don’t get it.

    • La Cieca isn’t alone, I think, in finding much of Mattila’s singing, in whatever language or style, somewhat faceless and generalized. At her best, she wields a glamorous voice and she is a bold, fierce performer. But she does not, I think, bring much specificity or original insight to what she sings.

      There are some singers who are naturally very expressive: Gheorghiu and, to a lesser extent, Netrebko. But that is not strictly “Kunst.” Rather, Kunst generally is understood to apply to meticulous intellectual effort, usually in the absence of a great instrument. Callas and Tebaldi were both wonderfully expressive artists, but Callas was the Kunstdiva.

      I am more than willing to be proven wrong here about Mattila: YouTube clips are welcome.

      • I think see La Cieca’s point abouto Matilla. She may throw her self into her roles with fearless abandon, but her singing isn’t necessarily intellectual. I can see that.

        For me, it’s more about understanding the application of the term here to various divas, rather than making a case for any particular singer. I’m still confused by Renee’s scoring in that category — not that it’s very high but I would have thought that she’d be at the bottom of the pile. Is it because she puts so much calculated effort into her phrasing, regardless of whether the results are in bad taste or not?

        • Is it because she puts so much calculated effort into her phrasing, regardless of whether the results are in bad taste or not?

          Yes. This was a tough call for La Cieca. Fleming is obviously not an instinctive artist who makes beautiful noises. She aspires, I think, to Kunstdiva heights, and she has the all the technical artillery necessary. She lacks the discretion and taste to wield that artillery properly. Or, as Mort Sahl suggested the 1960 biopic about Wernher von Braun should be retitled, “I Aim at the Stars (But Sometimes I Hit London).”

      • LittleMasterMiles

        I’ve always understood Stimme vs Kunst as a dichotomy: the Kunst-diva is willing to sacrifice sheer vocal beauty (and possibly stage decorum) in service to the drama. While that may be facilitated by an intellectual approach, it isn’t exclusively associated with it. Catherine Malfitano’s Salome is a good example: I can’t say that she brought new insight to the role, but her willingness to sound like a one-woman cat duet certainly gave the performance power.

        By this rubric Renee should certainly be at the bottom of the Kunst pile, and Mattila perhaps somewhere higher up.

        But then again, this has a lot to do with the roles one sings. Some roles (like Salome) virtually demand an either-or approach to Stimme vs Kunst, but the Marschallin simply has to sound fabulous, so it’s all about Stimme.

      • luvtennis

        I agree wholeheartedly, La Cieca.

        A kunst diva is not simply a good PHYSICAL actress, which Mattila has been on may occasions.

        A kunst diva is an artist for whom the voice and the physique are mere tools to be used in service of profound expression. Or an artist who is good at faking the above, maybe because of some vocal deficiencies (but that’s cynical).

        I don’t think Mattila makes in that category because her singing is rarely detailed. She is accurate but never penetrating. She can sing the notes, but she almost nevers embodies them.

        For me the ultimate kunstdiva is Olivero. She was a technically accomplished singer, capable of incredibly detailed vocal acting that she could match with equally detailed physical acting to create an organic experience. Callas, of course, meets that criteria, but Olivero accomplished much of what Maria did without being able to rely on the glamor and the scandal to give her performances that ooomph.

      • Harry

        I do not think you will be proven wrong. Just take Mattila in the filmed Manon Lescaut. She looked like she had walked into the wrong opera performing a by -- the -- numbers slovenly ‘mature wench’. As Manon Lescaut? What a laugh. no wonder she finally decided even Tosca, did not suit her.
        It was sticking out like ‘dog’s balls.

      • Gualtier M

        A point here: Mattila’s worst language as a singer is Italian. She has sung Elisabeth de Valois in “Don Carlos” in French but that seems to be her only French role. Both Cieca and I are better versed in Italian than we are in say German, Russian and Czech. Mattila’s best roles are in the Janacek, Wagner, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven repertory.

        I really couldn’t deal too specifically with Mattila’s strengths pointing up Russian or Czech words or coloring her tone to match them. However, I felt her Salome when she first sang it in NY was masterful in the innocent prism-like pure tone that reflected many colors allied to a very potent verbal delivery. However, Mattila in Puccini has problems in matching word to tone to pronunciation that are painfully obvious.

        • LittleMasterMiles

          OMG Gualtier I think I’m in love with you. Or at least in love with this excellent observation.

    • peter

      And I don’t get the concept of “scandale”. Maybe I’m dense but how come Caballe rates so high on that scale. Is that because of all her cancellations?

      • “Scandale” covers any sort of exciting bad behavior: feuds with colleagues, tantrums during rehearsals or performances, faux pas interviews, hostile audiences, and, yes, cancellations. For Caballe to announce she was ill and therefore would cancel the opening night of La Scala after the performance already began is a pretty spectacular scandale.

        • peter

          I love it!! Didn’t Caballe stop the show in the middle of a performance of Norma in Mexico City to ask for the lights to be adjusted? I can see why she’s so high on the scandale chart.

        • Often admonished

          Caballe did incredible work in the trenches. Her wayward singing in Ballo drove that dear Dutchman Haitink to such frustration that he came close to forswearing opera altogether. If only … and just think, all it would have taken was another gentle push.

        • Harry

          Oh! What a pity we are here talking only about just the sopranos.
          There was a good rumor years ago, about one mezzo (no names) bashing up their ‘partner’ backstage in one famous European opera house. Then, as a result, being made persona non grata for the next 2 years there.

        • luvtennis

          Still the greatest operatic scandal to occur during my lifetime.

          Is it true that there near riots in Milan as a result? THe opera was Anna Bolena as I recall. An role that she should have been able to sing in her sleep, frankly. Assuming of course that she had bothered to learn it in time for the prima….

        • richard

          Caballe’s Anna Bolena “scandale” was a wonderful textbook example of the term.
          But it was actually her second scandale at La Scala although not quite so much of the shitstorm was directed at her. But enough was.
          In 1976 Scala was staging a 50th anniversary
          production of Turnandot. The whole project had a life of it’s own in a way that only happens in Italian opera houses.
          Nilsson was to be Turandot, Caballe Liu, and there were rumors that Corelli would be Calaf.

          Nilsson decided that her Turandot days were over and stepped down. Caballe agreed to sing her first Turandot at La Scala on this festive occasion and Freni was engaged to take Caballe’s place as Liu.

          And then the problems began. Gianfranco Cecchele was finally announced as the Calaf and sometime before the premiere Freni became indisposed and dropped out and was replaced by Elena Mauti-Nunziata. Still Montsy was game for Turandot. Or was she. A few days before the premiere she had a tooth pulled.(a very unglamorous, undiva like ailment) and so there were worries that this might affect her performance.

          Premiere day comes. Act 1 begins and ends and there is a long wait for act 2. Zubin Mehta had to go before the curtain and announce that Caballe (gasp) would NOT sing; she had a kidney ailment. Emma Renzi, the South African soprano took over. The crowd was not too happy; although I’ve heard a recording of Renzi’s performance and she wasn’t bad; the the most deluxe instrument but she could sing the role.

          At the time when I read about this in Opera Magazine I wondered what happened at Turandot’s appearance in act 1. Did Caballe appear? Or did a super appear instead?

          Anyway it was Caballe’s first Scala scandal but the Anna Bolena a few years later was even more spectacular.

      • judycadanna

        Another example of scandale: The number of h’s used in the Cenerentola clip.

  • manou

    I tried…I really tried not to…and I speak no German. But I googled it and it is Stimme, with an “e”.

    Sorry -- I can’t help myself.

    • tannengrin

      die Marschallin is right. Also- as German, I enjoyed the abbreviation, playing it in my head with an Alpine accent -- which would flatten (ha!) the final ‘e’. I imagined some Karajan or Boehm in the pit, demanding ‘mehr Stimm!’ from the stage as they drive the orchestra into a frenzy.

      I know… all that even before cocktail hour!

  • Feldmarschallin

    Die Stimme = The Voice
    aber Stimmdiva oder Kunstdiva

    • “Stimm” is essentially an English neologism invented by Ethan Mordden to refer to that quality a Stimmdiva brings to the table, i.e., a great vocal instrument and an instinctive sense of how to express through song. So “Stimm” doesn’t mean strictly “voice” but I suppose, more broadly, “singing.”

      Leaving off the “e” also makes it easier to remember that the word is meant to be understood as part of the (again neologistic) term “Stimmdiva.”

      • manou

        Thank you all -- I can sleep at last.

        These are the ill-effects of a French education, I’m afraid. You have to get things right/i> at all times.

        And now you have put me right.

        • manou

          …and I have the italics wrong

  • rommie

    joyce di donato having cult status? i mean, she’s good and all but come on.

    • scargo

      Thank you rommie for saying it: JDD is a very nice lady and I love her politics. But you’re absolutely right — “she’s good and all, but come on.”

      • melisma catatonia

        I heard JDD in Cenerentola in Paris 2002. I thought, good voice, but not as charismatic as Bartoli. In fact, JDD reminded me at the time of the girl I would have voted to be head cheerleader, not prima donna. As it was, a little-known tenor named Juan Diego Florez stole the show. However, that JDD clip shows a perfomer who has learned how to shift into a higher gear. I’m looking forward to hearing her again.

        • CruzSF

          And look how everyone still loves Bartoli! :-)

  • CruzSF

    Well, I’d carry JDD on my shoulders through the streets, if she’d let me.

    • pernille

      CruzSF, I think you could count on a lot of help for that enterprise!

      • CruzSF

        :-) The 2 times I’ve seen her live and in person, she was nothing less than stunning. Not only did I marvel at the abilities of the human voice, JDD also made me want to be a hetero or a lesbian (well, just a little bit). Of all the female singers I’ve seen live, she’s the one I’d fly to another city to see & hear. (I admit that my list of live singers is much smaller than most of the other commenters here.)

        Not only that, but she is extremely gracious in person and very chatty.

        • rommie

          but is she a cult figure?

        • rommie

          i think someone with a cult status should be a little bit dangerous. i don’t really sense any dramatic or personality “danger” in her. broken leg and all.

        • CruzSF

          To quote La Cieca: It’s still a bit early in Joyce DiDonato’s career to grant her full Cult Status, though this performance may well mark the turning point.

          So I consider that JDD is on her way to cult status, if not fully there yet. Your criterion of “a little bit dangerous” may not be necessary for every fan.

        • I think it’s worthy to note that JDD got the lowest cult rating of all of them. But because she’s so damn good, she has the potential to become a cult figure down the line.

        • CruzSF

          Oh, is her cult-rating that low? Then why the complaints, rommie? Are you protesting years in advance of her potential cult-status?

        • rommie

          Cruz, I just think that a cult diva should have something that’s a little crazed about them that will drive the fans ball-up-the-wall crazy. I dont really like the word crazed but i dont really know what the exact word is.

          yes laC did say she is not yet there in terms of cult status… but i just dont get why she was featured in the first place… i just dont see her being a cult diva. she’s nice. she’s good. but i get no sense of suspense with her. maybe im just a philistine.

        • CruzSF

          You’ll probably have to wait awhile for JDD to do something batshit crazy. As for why she’s featured in the list, you’ll have to wait for La C to answer.

    • luvtennis


      What is it about her that moves you?

      I know that she is a gifted singer with a lovely voice. She is rejoices in her calling and is fan-friendly in the extreme. Technically, she seems complete.

      So why am I not in love with her yet? What is it about her that moves you most?

      Why is it that whenever I think of JDD, I think of Eve Harrington. Lovely facade concealing driving ambition. And let’s remember that Ms. Harrington was certainly a gifted actress in her own right -- she was definitely just an untalented obsessive. She attempted to steal what she might otherwise have rightfully earned.

      That’s my highly biased and most likely wrongheaded reaction to JDD. Perhaps I am a bad person. . . .

      • luvtennis

        definitely NOT just an untalented obsessive.. . .
        Please, God, give us an edit button.

      • CruzSF

        Hmmm. luvtennis, I think her voice is great: agile, strong, full-bodied. I think her commitment on the stage is impressive and commendable.

        The first role I saw her portray was Octavian, in love with Soile Isokoski’s rather cool Marschallin. I gave JDD extra points for acting so boy-like: fresh and impetuous, with swagger covering confusion over his changing roles in life. And she somehow transformed her rather full-figure (up top) into a boy’s. (Maybe credit here should go to her dresser, but the overall effect helped add credibility to the character.)

        In recital, she was able to change her voice to match the song, so it didn’t seem like one character sang the entire concert (a selection of arias from Donna del Lago, a series of Spanish songs, and then encores gathered from her stage roles).

        Re: driving ambition. I take it as a given that performers at her level (singing in big houses at home and abroad) have driving ambition. The outliers are those who can manage to achieve a big performance career without driving ambition, so I don’t hold that against her (neither do I hold it in her favor -- it’s par for the course).

        Re: the Eve Harrington comparison. I don’t know what to make of this but I don’t think I agree with it. If she “attempted to steal what she might otherwise have rightfully earned,” there would have to be someone from whom she stole. I don’t know that she “stole” from anyone. Is there a similar singer that she displaced, that she unjustly kept from getting jobs?

        I know my comments might make it appear that I’m only for JDD. I’m not (as longtime readers of my posts here will attest). I like many singers. But JDD is my favorite singer (at the moment) that I’ve heard both live and on recordings.

        • luvtennis

          The Harrington comparison is probably just me being crazy, but I get the sense that JDD is this ambitious careerist masquerading as a “sweet girl making it big in the big city while remaining true to herself and all the little people who helped her get to where she rightfully belongs -- ruling the operatic world with an iron fist.”

          I probably just need therapy. She does work that chest though. . . .

      • luvtennis --
        would the following excerpt perhaps change your observation of JDD as an Eve Harrington style singer?

        That’s the farthest I’ve seen any singer go!

        • This is what I love about JDD. She’s growing as an artist. From the get go, she was able to deliver a perfectly charming Rosina. But she can also do this!! And she has superb technique and musicality to back up her histrionics. Brava diva!

        • Kashania you should see this entire Herucles. I assure you, its a grand interpretation both as singing, acting, presence. Its a detailed and clear portrayal of a character’s disintegration from regal hauteur into madness.

        • luvtennis

          A couple of observations:

          Her acting is awesome here. Detailed, meaningful, musical. The voice is well-controlled and she knows how to act WITH the voice while moving on stage.

          I actually own this DvD but have never watched it. I will now do so if only to experience her performance.

          That said, I am not convinced by the production or direction. Sorry, I don’t think Handel’s operas are really suited to this type of veristic production. That must sound really hidebound of me, but I get the sinking feeling that we are doing this to Handel because we don’t have the singers for verismo! Problem is Handel’s music demands a more constrained passion and the drama is in the MUSIC, the harmonies, the coloratura not in the emoting. To (mis)paraphrase Mr. Mordden -- there is no room for garlic and swinging boobs in Handel -- at least not in MY Handel. Save that for Mascagni or Giordano.

          Ahhh for Auger and Margaret Marshall!

        • youre mostly right about Handel, but then think of Ginevra’s mad scene, of Jephtha’s Deeper and deeper still, of Saul’s ravings (with the carillon!) etc. As any truly great composer, Handel was both totally of his generation and yet out of it. Dejanira’s mad scne is surely unique in the history of vocal music, in that it brilliantly portrays in musical terms an outbreak of paranoia hysterics. This is surely unique and way out of contemporary musical context. Just think of the encircling semitones in “no rest the guily find” around the end of the piece. It is surely a unique piece of music, much like Lady Macbeth’s somnambulist scene, some 100 years later. It surely merits and demands a musical-dramatic delivery that oversteps the boundaries. And I DO trust Christie in Handel.

          Besides, I LOVE Margaret Marshall. Arleen Auger less so, somehow.

        • Luvt: I don’t think that opera directors are doing this kind of veristic production because of a lack of real verismo singers. I think it’s all done in the spirit of “breathing life” into Handel. The inspiration is to make Handel’s dramas more relevant to audiences and present them as vibrant theatre that today’s audiences would “get”. Call me cynical but I don’t see most opera directors taking their cues from the style of music, i.e. what kind of direction is apporopriate for verismo vs baroque.

        • Bafff. I need editing, or at least to read my postings ONCE before posting them! nevermind.

        • luvtennis


          You are completely right. I do not mean to suggest that Handel’s emotional range is limited. The whole universe of human emotion and experience is there in his operas. But the EXPRESSION of that universe takes place within a fairly narrow framework, one that exists in the interplay between the human voice, the vocal conventions of his day (which he often played AGAINST) and harmonies, dynamics, and elaborations of his music. That is why he is the first truly classical opera composer in my opinion.


          You are probably right. I just wish we could put a moratorium on staging Handel productions for awhile. He is becoming like Mozart in the 90’s -- done to death by production people who should probably move on to something else.

          But we have so many great Handel singers these days that it cannot be helped, I guess.

        • I’m more than happy to agree about containing the emotion in Handel’s operas within the stylistic framework. But Dejanira’s scene strikes me as so completely outside its period and style, both in architecture, the use of melismas and coloratura, range, word setting, harmonic language, that I think it needs something else. Handel was experimenting here writ large.
          Some contemporary productions of Handel are tasteless, some work for me. Musically, I less and less like the ‘driven’ quality of Minkowski’s work in this field (although his Ariodante is undeniably exciting) and look for more understatement. Christie is usually expert in achieving a good balance between style and expression. You may hate Sellar’s ideas in Theodora, but the musical experience is undoubtedly patrician, a gem.

        • La marquise de Merteuil

          A friend of mine saw Callas in concerts singing the mad scenes from “Puritani” and “Macbeth”. He said he was ashamed to look at her because she looked like a mad person. And if anyone has truly seen a mad person you know you get really uncomfortable and can’t watch them.

          I found no problem in watching this scene. Very dramatic and faux mad but nothing that made me feel uncomfortable. Great singing though.

          I think luvtennis is on to something about the Eve Harrington comparison. Although, in truth can’t see anything wrong about being driven and doing what it takes to get there. JDD deserves her success.

        • iltenoredigrazia

          kashania says ” I don’t see most opera directors taking their cues from the style of music…” Oh, dear kashania, this is so painfully true! Why, oh why has the music become so irrevelant to the visual aspects of the production?

        • LittleMasterMiles

          Wow wow wow. Fabulous performance.

          And yes, although luvtennis makes a good point about restraint in Handelian opera, this scene is exceptional precisely because it’s a mad scene. Opera seria is always and only about high-status people trying to keep their shit together; everything about the style points to that. And when they fail, the mad scene is very specifically about the complete inversion of all markers of restraint—not only of general self-control, but of musical continuity as well: elusive forms, tempo fluctuations, and harmonic oddities can all be introduced as ways of portraying a character in extremis. Although JDD undoubtedly takes this performance further than Handel would have contemplated, she’s still true to the principle on which the scene is built.

        • NYCOQ

          While this is a stunning clip it also suffers from being taken out of context of the opera as a whole. I saw her perform this role at BAM and purchased the dvd when it was released. I would suggest that the entire opera be taken as an organic whole. In that context and coupled with the brilliant cast (dare I say that this was the role that put JDD on the map -- she had been singing some perfectly wonderful Rosinas, but this performance put opera world on notice)it all works and did not seem out of place or inappropriate. I am a major fan of JDD and always take the opportunity to see her perform live. Definitely looking forward to hearing her Komponist & Octavian.

  • CruzSF

    Oh, dramatic danger? I’ve seen JDD express that, in recital and as Octavian. Her performances were balls-to-the-wall, wholly invested and nearly disappearing into the roles. Is that what you mean by “dramatic danger”?

    • No Expert

      Hello, CruzSF, I have to confess I haven’t been captivated by JDD yet either.But I haven’t seen her in person. I thought her recording of Alcina was… tasteful.

      • CruzSF

        Hi No Expert: long time no see. Well, I guess almost no one singer can captivate everyone. Unlike Callas! ;-)

        I’m sure that a MAJOR factor in my appreciation for JDD is that she was the best thing in one of the very first operas I saw live. Had my first exposure been with Dame G, Jackie, Zinka, or Mary Garden, I’m sure I’d be devoted to one of them instead.

        BTW, I’m seeing “Werther” tonight. Whenever I come across Massenet and that French period, I think of you because of the discussions we had here when I first started commenting at Parterre. I hope you’re well.

        • No Expert

          Mary Garden! I’m not THAT old. But I know what you mean….sometimes we imprint on that first great soprano we experience like goslings on a mother goose. I have to say since I started coming to Parterre I’ve learned appreciate our contemporary divas too.

        • CruzSF

          Maybe not you, No E, but in another area of this thread, they’re referencing Lawrence and Gadski.

      • luvtennis

        No expert:

        I must confess to having been extremely disappointed to discover (after receiving it in the mail!) that Gauvin was Morgana and not Alcina!

        • Oh I think that Curtis Alcina is the best ever Handel opera recording. And Gauvin is stunning as Morgana. She is usually stunning.

  • luvtennis

    Here is my take on the contemps:


    For me, Fleming, Gruberova, and Zajick rule in this category. 10 years ago, I thought Mattila might end up being the Isolde of my dreams, but the voice seems to have suffered greatly from all the heavy Italian music. Puccini is NOT a good fit for her voice. Renee has suffered from constant rep fiddling -- she never let the voice settle into a composer, language or even era. Gruberova is probably the greatest singer qua singer on this list, but the voice itself is soo controversial, and arguably, not well suited to some of her late career rep. Zajick is probably best at matching voice and rep, and she is a knockout singer, but no mezzos allowed in my contest. So the winner for me has to be Edita. The Gheorghiu sound is exquisite, but there is no GLORY in her voice for me. Netrebko has the glory, the SOUND, but she is such an unfinished singer. If she got it together in that regard, she would win hands down.

    Kunst -- Angie wins this one hands down. Renee is next but her inner editor needs an inner editor. Meier is probably the most complete actress of all, but the soprano version of her voice is not a sufficiently malleable instrument for me. A kunst diva has to be able to work the voice like fine embroidery. That is not La Meier.

    Iconic moment -- Angie and Anna tie here. I can think of no greater iconic moments than their first big Violettas (London and Salzburg). Sorry, Renee, I love you, but a Rolex commercial is not a iconic moment.

    Cult status -- Toss up between Edita and Joyce. Edita achieved world fame and then BECAME a cult singer. Joyce has inspired a devoted cult in early prime, but I think she is a future breakout star even if her charms continue to elude me. Renee, Anna and Angie are just too widely popular to qualify as cult singers.

    Overall winner? Angie. If she had just a slightly more imposing voice and a slightly less imposing sense of her own worth, she would be one for the ages. Anna could still turn out to be a true great but the clock is running. Renee? She managed her career for the fame when she should have focussed more on building a reliable rep (and the improved taste that might presumably go with it).

    Still, Renee at her best is still the greatest singer on this list. Too bad her best stays at home to often.

    All in all, none of these singers can compare to Organosova or Brewer as great musicians AND vocalists.

    Holding out for Jennifer Wilson though!

    • I completely agree about Angie. The voice has a lovely colour and she is an expressive singer. But if only the voice were more powerful, it could match her dramatic temprament and she could be singing the big Italian roles. And her personality does get in the way sometimes. During the Met Boheme telecast, I very much got the impression that I was seeing Gherghiou as Mimi, rather than just Mimi.

    • luvtennis I concur with 90% of what you’ve written. Brava for a detailed observation.

      Instead of pointing out the points where I differ, let’s talk about divas of the future, or at least next 10 years

      I’m dissappointed Nina Stemme didn’t make it. Anybody who can deliver such a Surabaja Johnny is MY diva.

      then, Stephanie d’Oustrac is certainly a baroque-French diva of the highest pedigree, despite a very lyrical (yet easily produced) voice

      Incidentally, the whole, very French production of Carmen with d’Oustrac making her debut in the role can be seen here for free:

      The, there is the immensely talented and exciting Eva-Maria Westbroek :

      And I agree Wilson is a singer in the grand tradition. If she makes it. But is she a true stage animal? Based on her Brunnhildes, albeit in a terribly staid production, I doubt it. Yet here she is, singing the Siegfried duet sublimely, as surely no one has done in the past 30 years

      • luvtennis


        I would amend the comment on the Wilson Siegfried duet as follows: as no one has done in the past 70 years. Nilsson was awesome on those exposed high notes, but you have to go back to Flagstad and Leider to hear legato of that quality.

        Agree on Stemme. By all accounts, she is on the verge of all-timer status. BUT, her rep is high risk (a lyric-dramatic has very little margin for error in the big Wagner roles), and only time will tell if her technique can support the type of career track record that would elevate her to that rank.

        Not familiar enough with Westbroek yet? Is she fairly represented on Youtube.

        I have steered clear of her in the past because every time I see her name I think of Luana DeVol and run in the opposite direction. I am not sure why that is.

        • I agree about the 70 years! I was timid on that, fearing bashing by the Nilsson lovers. But I totally agree. Its Austral and Leider and Flagstad and Lawrence quality singing. As if the good old times were back.

          You should see the Shostakovich sex scene with Westbroek! She’s definitely one for the ages.

        • luvtennis

          I try never to judge singers on appearances. I don’t care that a soprano weighs 300lbs as long as she is a great singer. If I want hot, I can grab a Penthouse on the way to the opera house.

          That said, Jennifer would do herself SOOOOOO much good by dropping about 30-50lbs slowly under appropriate medical supervision. Even 25lbs. BUT, if she keeps singing like she is now, I don’t care if she gains another 100 kilos!

        • peter

          I heard Westbroek live last year as Sieglinde in SF and while I’ll say she was absolutely thrilling, her voice did not sound particularly distinctive to me. Maybe I need to hear her more. I am kind of curious about Anja Kampe, having heard only her Sieglinde broadcast from L.A. She will sing Sieglinde in next year’s Ring in SF. Has anyone heard her live?

        • luvtennis


          Listening to the Siegfried again, I think you may have to go back to Gadski for a adequate comparison. Why? For one reason -- the high C. Leider, Flagstad, Lawrence (Austral’s vibrato has always hindered my enjoyment of her art) were complete singers but they did not have the sort of blazing reliable high C that La Wilson unleashes at will.

        • luvtennis

          “aN adequate comparison”

        • scifisci

          Stemme is certainly deserving of being in this survey and radvanovsky too, though I understand that they weren’t nominated by very many. Stemme will either continue as she has or break her voice on this rep.

          Eva M-W is absolutely great and has that rare, glamorous sound in the middle….a sound I associate with the great sieglindes of the past. This doesn’t quite come across on recordings, nor does the excitement and thrust of her top. I see a lot of exciting things in her future.

        • I’m very excited as we’re to hear Wilson as Tove around June. Since Wagner is banned over here, unfortunately, and we get little to no Strauss, this is as close to the real thing as is humanely possible over here.

          I don’t ‘get’ Radvanosky. I never heard her live, but she sounds like a 1984 Plowright, with infinitely better coloratura and a better top. And sense of style. But there’s something ‘produced’ or ‘manipulated’ about the sound and the attitude. Although people I know heard her live and said she was very exciting. Essentially she’s my kind of singer but it somehow doesn’t work for me.

        • luvtennis

          1984 Plowright.

          I can hear it. With Radvan, I am waiting for her to appear in a complete studio recording of something. Until then, I don’t feel good about judging her qualities as a singer, except to note that the voice is well-qualified for her chosen rep., but the timbre does not move me yet.

        • God, I hope Wilson’s schedule is free when Debbie is scheduled to sing the role at the Met. It’s too late for Walküre this year but perhaps for the complete cycles in a couple of years?

        • scifisci

          Kashania: Have you seen the promo pick of early tech rehearsals of brunnhilde’s bed time? It would be very scary to contemplate a big girl like jennifer wilson in that position.

          Sigh, i’d give up all the effects and see-saws and what have you just to have her sing it at the Met though….

      • lorenzo.venezia

        I was lucky to have heard her Gotterdammerung in Firenze last year. Really stunning!

        • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

          Me too, lorenzo. I must confess to not knowing much about Jennifer Wilson before then. I’ve been paying closer attention ever since, that’s for sure.

      • marshiemarkII

        For the daughter of Frieda Leider and Kirsten Flagstad, or was it Gadski and Austral?, Ms Wilson gets a decidedly underwhelming audience response at her solo curtain call, even the tenor (who makes Manfred Jung sound like Jon Vickers) gets a bigger hand. And the Valencia public is extremely knowledgeable about Wagnerian singing. Both Barcelona and Valencia are great Wagnerian houses, from the days of Francisco Vinas, with a great discerning public. They sure knew great Wagnerian singing in 1998 when they heard a stunning Goetterdammerung, applauding most of the intermission after Act II.

        So Ms Wilson does sing a stunning high C at the end, very long and still within the musical parameters, so it is not just for show off. Very good. But her high notes (As, Bs, etc) are smaller and definitely not RADIANT, that is so important in this most glorious of Wagner scores. So I would definitely temper my enthusiasm for now. At the beginning of the clip, that middle/low sounds old, and wobbly which is also odd for an upstart. And the glorious long line doing counterpoint to the demonic teufel motif descending scale of the tenor at the very end, was so short that he was singing alone most of the line. I have heard much better!

        I wish her the best of luck, I hope Wilson, and Theorin, and of course Stemme do develop into great Wagnerians, and can sustain it for a long time, so they get lots of new productions, and a lot of interest in Wagner, that is always a good thing. But Wilson is so far from the real thing right now, to say nothing of her [non-existent] acting abilities. Could no one have told her to stay still and the very end, and let Siegfried run to her instead, if she could not do the athletic jump into his arms? That come-hither walk at the end was giggle-inducing, sort of as an overweight Mae West. More Vegas than Bayreuth. And at such a moment of absolute pure sublimity, as only Wagner could provide, what a pity!

        • marshiemarkII

          Could no one have told her to stay still AT the very end

        • luvtennis

          You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but there are those of us who welcome Wilson with open arms.

          More on this anon.

        • luvtennis

          For those who value true singing in Wagner, the 3 decades have been very challenging. In the 80s, we had a number of sopranos undertake the roles with voices and singing techniques that were, at best, marginally acceptable by historical standards. Behrens, Marton, Jones, were all far from ideal exponents of the big Wagner roles. All three were committed actresses, but none of them had the sort of reliable instruments and techniques that can withstand the rigors of singing Wagner in big halls against loud, overbearing orchestras without debilitating vocal strain and wobble.

          In my opinion, Behrens was the best of this group. Although the basic timbre of the voice was neither particularly lovely nor commanding, she had the strong upper register necessary to get through the big climaxes and enough vocal steadiness to manage her way through the rest. Marton and Jones, no matter how wonderful they might be in the house on a given day, left us recordings that are completely inadequate. Jones’ constant and instrinsic vocal unsteadiness, Marton’s overbearing vibrato and short top would have barred them from any sort of major international careers in Wagner at any prior time as far as I can tell.

          The 90’s were a better decade. Eaglen, for all her deficiencies, was a far more technically complete singer than any of the singers above and the voice was more intrinsically suited to Wagner as well. Polaski also proved herself a worthy Wagnerian even if the basic timbre of her voice and inconsistent top left something to be desired.

          Now we are experiencing a bit of a mini-golden age in Wagner soprano singing. And boy it feels good.

          Brewer, who might have been a truly great Wagnerian, seems to have let time pass her by to an extent. But Stemme, Gasteen (at least until recently), Dalayman have thrown themselves into Wagner with occasionally noteworthy results. And a degree of vocal steadiness quite beyond anything we got from Marton or Jones. For her part, Stemme seems well on her way to becoming the Varnay of her era.

          But those of us holding out for a truly beautiful voice in this rep have not yet been satisfied until Wilson. This woman, in my estimation, has the most beautiful voice to undertake this rep since Grob Prandl and Flagstad. For this reason alone, I will eagerly devour all I can of her singing as it becomes available. Is she a great physical actress? All evidence to date suggests that she is not. But I simply don’t care. I would trade every performance of Behrens, Jones, Marton, Theorin, Gasteen for that Siegfried duet posted above.For me though, but we have had a number of great actresses singing Wagner in the last 40 years. And not one of them has brought to sort of vocal accomplishment, musical sensitivity and sheer tonal beauty, but nothing to compare to the splendor enjoyed during previous eras in Wagner performance history.

          And by the way, I don’t give a damn what some other audience or person thinks of a singer. I feel that I done enough homework to trust my own opinions. If the Valencia audience did not respond to Wilson too bad for them. Today’s general opera audiences are not reliable guides when it comes to judging vocal excellence. Not in the freaking least.

        • luvtennis

          SOrry had a computer glitch. Here is what I meant to post as the penultimate paragraph of my boring rant.

          “But those of us holding out for a truly beautiful voice in this rep have not yet been satisfied until Wilson. This woman, in my estimation, has the most beautiful voice to undertake this rep since Grob Prandl and Flagstad. For this reason alone, I will eagerly devour all I can of her singing as it becomes available. Is she a great physical actress? All evidence to date suggests that she is not. But I simply don’t care. I would trade every performance of Behrens, Jones, Marton, Theorin, Gasteen for that Siegfried duet posted above.”

  • luvtennis

    Just in case anyone cares, I can say that Zajick wins hands down in the Diva as cool homegirl contest. I had the great pleasure of spending a few hours gabbing with her and Susan Dunn after a performance at the Cincinnati May Festival. At that time, I had high hopes for Dunn!!!

    Anyway, Dunn had some really funny observations about the absurdity of the business, especially the recording side. (As well as some really choice observations about her then competition which cannot be repeated!)

    Dolora was just too cool. Down-to-earth, wise-cracking, insightful. I just loved her.

    • Big Q

      Dunn must have been dishing Millo, and I’d love to know what she said. For a few years they were THE contenders to be the next big Verdi soprano. Whatever vocal disaster happened to Dunn, you can’t hear it in the few YouTube clips of her. A tad placid, perhaps, but her beautiful and intelligently deployed voice won me over. And Zajick simply rocks. No surprise that she’s smart too.

      • luvtennis

        All that I can say in response to your guess is hmmmmm.


    OK I am just going to say it -- am I the only one who finds Radnovsky’s voice ugly? Yes, there is the technical assurity and she seems to be one of the only Verdi sopranos out there these days, but whenever I see hear her perform it’s like nails on a chalk board. Definitely no vocal “glamour”. Which may be the reason Gelb dissed her in the beginning until he realized he had no other Verdi soprano to put on stage. If anything she qualifies for cult status -- a singer with a medium-to-small, but rabid group of fans.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      The voice can be very metallic. But she also has the ability to sing with great warmth, but it is clearly a major struggle for her to do so. Here is excellent for her in terms of just trying to create a beautiful sound and she doesn’t always succeed. But its on average her best work, she’s trying! And that breath control is pretty damn astounding on an intellectual level.

      • This is very successfull. Intelligent, the voice sounds well integrated, every t is crossed text-wise. She has obvisouly listened to many recordings and worked hard on the style and she knows what to emulate and which mannerisms of other Toscas to leave behind. The top sounds pretty easy and well supported. But something is still missing which I can’t put my finger on. I have yet to hear her do a complete role.

        Here, for example, is what should have been a travesty, yet quite, quite glorious. Despite the fact that she sings vuuusuu dartooo and cosuuuu. But there is individual response and the voice, not used to this kind of rep, revels in the opportunity.

        • armerjacquino

          CF, just for fun…

        • What a peculiar sound that girl made!
          Thanks for this. I never knew it existed.
          Actually, there are some interesting things and she visibly responds to the passion. Something in the music helps to open up the bottled sound and the climax is quite thrilling. But whatever text she sings, only she knows. Ah well.
          Anyway, I think the Sutherland in on a different plane of achievement.

        • Harry

          What you would call a nice performance fit for a concert, with a perfunctory Scarpia lurking in the background. But where is there signs of emotion and stress, the doubt , all that ‘inner personal questioning and dismay’ by Tosca at that point of the opera -- which, that aria is all about? Nowhere to be seen!

        • luvtennis


          Interesting how we respond differently to languages. Frankly, I will occasionally notice a performers use of words, but for the most part it is not a big issue for me.

          I have always found the “words” in opera to be the most disposable part of the artform. After all they were written by hacks, for the most part. Da Ponte, Hoffmanstahl (sp?) and Boito are a case a part for me.

          And remember, most of the operas that we love today achieved their fame in performances in the local vernacular. Local audiences didn’t care one bit that Verdi was performed in English or German. The powers that be ultimately put the kibosh on that, but it reminds me that words and language have often been the poor stepchildren of the art-form. And usually for good reason.

          I guess I relate to the human voice primarily as the first and still greatest MUSICAL instrument.

        • rommie

          she is missing the fire under her ass. i remember making my friend listen to a bootleg of her trovatore and he said she needs to loosen up a little…and speed up her tempi!

        • Liana

          But according to this reasoning, the singer could in fact sing anything; since it’s not important. Plus, if we dispose of the words, opera will not be opera anymore. And isn’t it an important part of the artistry, to interpret the text properly, to render the feelings, the drama etc, to stress what should be stressed? As for languages, I’d say the language does matter, since each one has its own melody, and the music was written in accordance with it; it’s why I hate operas in translation. They always give me a strong impression of dissonance between the words and the music. Plus, for many composers words were important, and very much so.After all, Boito was very faithful to Shalespeare in Otello, and for modern composers, like Britten, the libretto was nearly as important as the music itself.

        • marshiemarkII

          LuvT, you think Wagner’s words don’t mean anything? The glorious play with words that he makes in the Liebesnacht, as one of probably thousands of examples one could bring, or the words to the final scene of Siegfried (Lachende Tod), or the Heiliger Goetter Himmlisches Lenker sequence in Act II of Goeterdaemmerung, or the erschaute eure ewige schuld, meine klage hoert du herherstes Gott imprecation in the Immolation, that IS what opera is really, and no singer that doesn’t pay attention to that could be called a great singer.

        • CruzSF

          The language matters to me, too. Even if some (many?) of the librettists were “hacks” (I’m not sure I agree with luvt’s characterization), the composers wrote the music to match the words they were given (or in Verdi’s case, the words upon which he insisted). As Liana points out, languages have their own rhythms and musicality, and translations often can’t duplicate them.

        • richard

          Perhaps the single biggest difference between the human voice and all the other musical instruments that play in the orchestra is that the human voice can use language as a component of it’s music making. And for me one of the great distinctions of opera singers (or even popular singers) is their ability to use language to add depth and color and expression to their singing. It’s an option the other instruments don’t have.

          I think the issue of original language vs vernacular is a different discussion.

        • mrmyster

          CerFar: I think you can put your finger on what is missing -- diction!
          I surely agree the voice is solid, and there is always lots of ‘room
          at the top,’ which I find a comfort, and she is even moderately
          expressive with facial muscles etc., but there is no love of words.
          It’s classic Sutherland — love of tone, musically sound, but what
          of the words? She does not love them, make them live — I keep
          having the feeling if only she’d open her mouth and make those
          Italian vowels sound ‘warm.’ It would help so much. Is that Tito
          Gobbi standing behind her? Golly!
          You know, Welitsch was a famous and celebrated Tosca — I
          actually heard her in the theatre and she was thrilling — but
          her diction was even worse than Sutherland’s, and you can
          hear it on her Vissi d’arte recording — mush! Yet, she was so
          crazy and took so many risks it did not matter. Here Miss
          Tea-Party Perfect needs to do something a little less lady
          like; maybe that’s another part of the equation that you miss.
          (I do too.)
          I wonder how J. S. is? Totally recovered from breaking both
          legs in her Swiss garden? I hope it did not compromise her
          on-going health. I want her to be happy and well.

      • armerjacquino

        I always think the argument about singing in the vernacular is overstated. There are so few houses which do it. It’s easily enough avoided.

        • Liana

          At this point, I can’t resist embedding this clip. How do you like the torrero’s aria in Polish :)?

        • armerjacquino


          I’ve got a recording of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ in Russian somewhere.

        • richard

          There was a guy who did a lot of work collecting opera recordings and putting them out in MP3 format on CDROMS. His name was Mike richter and he was really active on a lot of internet opera sites back in the 90s. Sadly his health is very fragile these days but I do have maybe 2 dozen of his releases.

          He would occasionally specialize in unusual themes. Interested in a whole slate of Delibes/Gounod/Verdi/Puccini/Rossini/Mozart sung by an amazing array of Soviet singers….but ALL IN RUSSIAN? This CDROM is beyond amazing. You haven’t heard anything if you’ve never heard Dolukhanova in Cenerantola or L’Italiana or Vishnevskaya in an incandescent Libera Me from Verdi’s Requiem. Or Kozlovsky as Lohengrin.
          23 complete operas for 9.99. I’m serious


          I have no connection other than a happy collector.

          Another favorite in this series in opera from the PAris Opera 1948-1976 containing a lot of historical material with a lot of French Opera sung very differently than we hear today

          I have some other titles such as a three CDROM set of opera from the San francisco Opera that Mike had to pull because of a tussle with the lawyers from SFO.

        • armerjacquino

          Plus I don’t mind opera in translation if it means I get to hear singing as exquisite as this:

        • armerjacquino

          Richard- that’s where my Russian Nozze comes from. I’m a bit of a Vishnevskaya nut. I have the Munich collection as well.

        • MontyNostry

          Ooh dear, too Schwarzkopf meets Seefried for me, I’m afraid.

        • luvtennis

          Not trying to be a parade wetter, but have you actually read up on the performance history of virtually every Italian opera written in the 18th and 19th century?

          I really don’t see how anyone familiar with that history can argue that the words were all that important. At most they were vehicles for the notes and melodies being sung. Not always the case, but very often so. Wagner and late Verdi were certainly special cases, but even their works were often performed in whatever language would bring out the most butts.

          Much of the obsession with the words is a very recent phenomenon. I think. Otherwise, how on earth could Melba have been an Empress of the Golden Age? ;-)


          . . . not to mention the “Compare-and-Contrast” session with five or six different performances of Mozart and Salieri. A topic guaranteed to get you seated at all the right tables.

          Since this is likely to appear almost anywhere, I intend it to be part of the Mike Richter tribunal convened somewhere above.

        • CruzSF

          Well, luvt, you got me. I’ve only read “Divas & Scholars,” and it mostly covered Rossini & Verdi, plus Donizetti & Bellini. My memory is that Rossini and Verdi WERE interested in the words, and that Verdi was against translation of his works in some cases. But other than that, I think you must be more widely-read than I.

        • manou

          A warm welcome back to our very own Divissima, La Bobolink, making a much awaited return with one of her gnomic pronouncements.

        • Indiana Loiterer III

          I really don’t see how anyone familiar with that history can argue that the words were all that important. At most they were vehicles for the notes and melodies being sung. Not always the case, but very often so. Wagner and late Verdi were certainly special cases, but even their works were often performed in whatever language would bring out the most butts.

          There’s major confusion here. On the one hand, you claim that words aren’t important; a great singer can presumably sing vocalise without detracting from an operatic performance. On the other hand, you acknowledge that words got translated into local languages until recently; which might suggest that audiences were concerned enough with the words that they wanted to know what was going on. This would seem to suggest that words were dramatically important enough to translate.

          “Caring about the words” doesn’t necessarily mean caring about the phonetics of the original language. It does mean caring about the dramatic significance & impact of the words being sung, especially when the composer has taken care that they will be understood in whatever language they’re being sung in. (n that respect, I prefer the term “declamation” tot the term “diction”. Diction is what secretaries do; declamation is what actresses do.


          Ta, Manou, but I wasn’t really gone; just reduced to “Read Only” status for a few days. Got a question for you, as a bi-lingual. The translation of the recent ENO Faust has been shredded as archaic and risible. Is the original French that much more palatable to listen to? “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” strikes me as being rather oompy-poompy.


          Liana, just from the sound of the language, I find it distinctly more martial, less suave by comparison. Of course, the real question is “How do you like it?”

        • marshiemarkII

          Liana I just can’t resist, you once claimed to be a spanish speaker, so you should know it is toRero, no double rr there, or the more common usage for the name of the opera aria, toReador [song]. Both mean roughly the same, as you surely know, bullfighter :-) welcome back!

        • Liana

          Thank you, mmII. But I never claimed to be a Spanish speaker, since my knowledge of Spanish doesn’t go beyond Buenos Dias and gracias. Therefore,I feel entitled to spelling mistakes :). BAB, I agree with you; for me, too, it’s much more belligerent than the French version. I definitely prefer the original, though; Carmen in Polish is downright weird, and doesn’t go very well with the music, IMHO.

        • mrmyster- la Joan is still far from well at this time. She gets up for a short time each day but soon returns to bed. She has been through a very torrid time and we can but wish her well.

      • stevey

        I love that ‘Vissi d’arte’…. try this out. Equally gorgeous, and for me as sad and poignant as this aria should be

    • brooklynpunk

      NO…you are not THE ONLY ONE…..!!

      ..OTHER then in the VERY begining of her Stage career…I have yet to real understand the praise Ms. R receives , from many people whose opinions I respect…

    • Feldmarschallin

      no I find her voice ugly as well. She reminds me of late Plowright actually sometimes. Late Plowright.

      • MontyNostry

        But Plowright never really had comfortable top notes. (I think she was always really a high mezzo, personally — an Eboli and Amneris, rather than an Elisabetta and Aida.) Sondra can blast ’em out.

        • richard

          Thank you. I always thought that Plowright’s top notes were “on loan” and not really free sounding at all. I first heard her on a video Mary Stuart with Dame Granite and thought that Plowright sounded very foggy while honking out her top notes.

          And I bought her video Suor Angelica only to be really disappointed, the top wasn’t free at all, she took all the lower options, cutting all the high Cs and even some Bs, while sounding very dark in color.

          But I’ve heard many comments that mention how really spectacular her top was, with references
          to really high top notes, like E’s and Eflats.
          It seemed like I was a party to a big disconnect. It’s good to know someone else was hearing what I was hearing.

          I’ve heard a rumor (I think from Parterre’s Impossible Disks) that a studio Traviata was recorded with RP but never released because of Act 1 “problems”

        • armerjacquino

          A Plowright Sempre Libera doesn’t sound like much fun. I do think her Leonora for Giulini is very fine, though.

        • MontyNostry

          Plowright did do sessions for a Traviata with Giulini, but ‘Sempre libera’ turned into a Frankenstein job because of all the splicing that had to be done and the recording was never completed, I believe. She and Giulini had the same very manipulative PR person at the time who had all sorts of stuff going on with the DG’s then head of A&R … Plowright certainly had impressive vocal material, but she was somehow never at ease as a singer. She did an impressive Principessa di Bouillon opposite Miricioiu in concert a couple of years ago, but she still looked somehow uncomfortable with the process of singing and being on stage.

        • Harry

          And who can forget Plowright’s soprano contributions in DG’s Forza del Destino. If only….???!!! It should have never seen the light of day. England’s reat ‘soprano’ hope for while it lasted. or should I say blasted.

        • At least she had the dark, mysterious grandezza that I associate with the best interpreters of the role, and sang a very musical and moving duet with Padre Guardiano (IMHO one of Verdi’s most inspiring moments) Which is much, much more than you can say of Mirella Freni, who recorded it around the same time and did a nasty job. However, Plowright is best remembered for her ENO Desdemona and Elisabeth I and her Verona Leonora.

  • Harry

    Just the first few strains of Janowitz’s ‘tubular vocal delivery’ in something like Puccini with that clip, put my teeth on edge. The vocal production is just blatantly wrong. At the same time I can see why she was successful as Strauss’ Ariadne.

    • Teeth? I imagined “fangs”.

  • I enjoy Janowitz’s Lieder recordings, and stuff from Der Freischutz (one of my top 5 all time favorite operas) and Oberon, but I can’t really deal with her in any other rep.

    Somewhere in my house is a recording of her doing VLL with Celibidache conducting, and I don’t recall what happened but either she or he got waaaay off track, resulting in a mess.

    Not a huge fan, but I don’t hate her either.

    • peter

      Janowitz’s recording of the 4 Last Songs with Herbie the K is quite beautiful. No train wrecks but a very ethereal other worldly sound. She did other worldly very well. It’s an acquired taste but for pure beauty of tone she did some stunning singing. It’s damn silly to listen to her Puccini unless you want to hear everything she sang.

      Another singer who reminded me of her but with a lot more excitement in the voice was Mechtild Gessendorf.

      • armerjacquino

        I’m not going to make any great claims for that Vissi d’Arte, peter. I’m well aware that it’s just a curiosity, despite some beautiful singing (Stich-Randall’s is even more so; she sings it as if it were Bach).

        Don’t write off Janowitz in Puccini altogether though. She’s a damn good Mimi in a Vienna concert version with Cossutta, Rothenberger and Panerai. Interestingly, I’ve played it blind to several friends and asked who the singer might be and the usual guess is early Scotto (!)

        • peter

          I’ll have to listen to that sometime. Janowitz also sings very beautifully in that Don Carlos with Corelli.

        • armerjacquino

          She’s a lovely Boccanegra Amelia, too, although I rarely listen to that recording as I’m allergic to Eberhard Waechter.

          I wonder if anyone ever recorded any of her stage appearances as Aida? I’d be very curious to hear one. Temperamentally all wrong (which never stopped Margaret Price) but bits of O Patria Mia, ‘La, tra foreste vergini’ and the tomb scene would be very gorgeous, I think.

      • marshiemarkII

        The Janowitz recording of the VLL is simply THE most gorgeous of them all, and yes I do know and like Della Casa (with Dr Karl The Great of course) and the divine Flagstad, but Janowitz is sublime in a way only she can be in that music. Anna Tomowa-Sintow is a very close second, her more metallic timbre exciting like hell. Karajan called her the most perfect voice. But still for sheer ethereal beauty only Janowitz! I love her sound, so I also like her in Italian but I grant that that is more of an acquired taste and wouldn’t want to argue too fine the point.

        • armerjacquino

          I agree about the VLL, although I also love Della Casa and Mattila in that piece. I heard a MIRELLA FRENI(!) VLL the other day.

        • MontyNostry

          I believe there’s a Grace Bumbry VLL somewhere. Much as I love La Bumberina in the right repertoire, that doesn’t really bear thinking about.

        • armerjacquino

          You never know. She studied with Lehmann, remember, and recorded some lovely Schubert.

        • MontyNostry

          Grace is fab in certain lieder (her late-period Wigmore recitals had some truly glorious moments), but I imagine there were some dodgy gear changes and lunges at top notes in Fruehling and Beim Schafengehen.

          Particularly dear to my memory are live VLL by Margaret Price (Paris 1981) and Lucia Popp (London 1983). Christine Brewer (London 2004, I think) was rather wonderful too.

        • armerjacquino

          I’ve got thirty-odd recordings of the VLL but have only seen them live once…

          …with Maria Ewing.

        • MontyNostry

          In which case, armer, I can understand your preference for the safety of recorded versions.

        • Ah, the Karajan / Janowitz VLL. Yes, lovely sounds from the lady, but honestly, can you bear the tempi and the fact that between Karajan and the recording team, the various musical strands are mushed and it all sounds like something recorded in the bathtub? Ah, where are the triplets (later duplets) in flute+first violin playing flageolette, depicting Hesse’s falling leaves in September? It’s all mushed up here. And where’s the humanity?
          My desert island VLL are Jurinac / Busch, Popp / Tennstedt, Isokoski / Janowski and Tomowa-Sintow / Karajan. The autumnal Karajan is infinitely better here than previously with Janowitz, and for those who have quirks with ATS’s “slavic” vibrato, please remember that the composer himself preferred this kind of Slav timbre :

          On video the tie is between Popp / Solti, Isokoski / Oramo and Margiono / De Wart.

        • MontyNostry

          CF … As you know, I always have the greatest respect for you and your amazing knowledge, but Mesdames Cebotari (who was obviously very exciting) and Ursuleac (never quite sure about her, but she has something) were, of course, Romanian — which doesn’t make them Slav!

          As I’ve said on here before, it always interests me how many Romanian sopranos tend to share something in the timbre … Zeani, Cotrubas, Varady (I think officially Romanian rather Hungarian), Miricioiu, Gheorghiu — they all have a little ‘catch’ in the sound that links them.

        • Thanks so much, honestly, Monty. And you got me there. Well what I perceive as “Slav” quality is basically a wider vibrato, with greater ondulation (?) around the basic note. I instinctively and perhaps subjectively associate this kind of vibrato with Slavic singers. ATS is such a singer. Though I knew that both Ursuleac and Cebotari were Romanian, I remember the first time I’ve heard them and way very surpried by the wide vibrato, this in clear contradiction which the focussed sound which nowadays is considered to be an essantially “Straussian” voice -- i.e. Della Casa, Reining, Fleming, Janowitz.

      • marshiemarkII

        Peter where on earth did you ever hear Gessendorf sound like Janowitz???? Admittedly I have a single data point. It was a performance of the Fliegende Hollaender at the Met in 88 or 89. It was meant to be a new production for Marton (along with the NP of Salome) with revivals later for Behrens. Marton took a good look at the score and ran 1000 miles in the other direction, so they brought Mechthild Gessendorf for the prima. Behrens asked me to accompany her to one of the performances, so she could see the staging, in anticipation of her revival in 92, so we went. I was horrified at the vileness of the singing. Behrens was much more circumspect, but didn’t have much to say. I do not believe Gessendorf came back to the Met after that.

        • armerjacquino

          She surely did. I heard her as a glorious Marschallin on a Met broadcast in the early 90s. She was a lovely singer.

        • peter

          She sang the Marshallin, Sieglinde and maybe some other roles at the Met. It was sort of a reedy flute like sound, not that far a sound from Janowitz. Everyone hears things differently. I won’t go into what Behrens sounded like to me (although I did like her early on).

        • marshiemarkII

          All right fair enough, maybe Janowitz would not have sounded that wonderful herself had she essayed the Senta then :-)

          In fact, in Bach (and Handel) I think that Janowitz is the voice they play daily in heaven when God goes to Mass, really :-), and in Mozart (the Contessa especially), and whatever she did of Strauss (Richard and the Johans). But I do not like her as Leonore in Fidelio. She does sound to me over parted an hence missing the ecstatic, sublime glory that is that music. So no one is perfect, right?

        • richard

          I liked Gessendorf also. She did have that same German tubular, rather instrumental sound that Janowitz has (although I thought Janowitz sounded a bit more metallic…loved Janowitz’s Elsa thought). I heard Gessendorf as the MArschallin and the Empress in Frau. the top notes were ok in Frau but not really stupendous.

          But they was some flaw in her technique, as the 90s unrolled, her top became a bit more unreliable, leading up to an Ariadne where she wouldn’t come out for a bow. From the descriptions I’ve heard of Gessendorf’s Ariadne, it sounded a bit like the sadly notorious recording of Helga Dernesch Ariadne for Scottish Opera. It’s really sad, I can’t call it horrible, but Dernesch simply couldn’t get into her top register at all.

        • peter

          I believe there are 2 Met broadcasts of Gessendorf’s Marshallin and interestingly enough she sounds better on the 2nd one. That may have been her role.

        • marshiemarkII

          yeah well if the Marschallin was her role then she didn’t have much business singing Senta, but a good Marie Therese should also have good high notes, though not necessarily dramatic edge. As I recall, Mme Gessendorf didn’t have any high notes, and she was dull dull dull.

  • lutennis --
    “Much of the obsession with the words is a very recent phenomenon. I think. Otherwise, how on earth could Melba have been an Empress of the Golden Age?”

    Re melba and text -- I’d never judge the aria recordings, especially not the 1904 ones. She was prone to sing operatic excerpts in studio like a singing machine.

    But try things closer to her heart --

    infinitely touching here

    Or Tosti’s Goodbye

    or the live farewell concert from Covent Garden.

    I have tried to find the infinitely moving Ave Maria from Otello from that same farewell concert, not available on youtube. The voice is a shade of what it once was, yet the emotion contained therein is almost unbearable, again all the more touching for being harnessed and only hinted at.

    Apart from that and regarding diction and pointing of text, I do not think it is a modern phenomenon at all. Rather the opposite, the art of enunciating crisply and clearly, the sublime art of declamation is almost entirely gone. The OBSESSION with text (along with, of course, seamless legato) is over.

    A few examples --

    German school :

    French school :

    Italian School :

    With English / Russian schools the situation is slightly better, in Russia because on behalf of the iron curtain, in England because they wisely maintain the tradition through solid choral training.

    In all these antique excerpts you can clearly and easily transcribe the text from the recordings, despite the cutting of higher frequencies which should interfere with the consonants. Of how many contemporary singers can you say that? Too few -- I think of maybe Terfel, Stemme, Bartoli, Leiferkus, Delunsch, very few. A thinker.

  • mrmyster

    I was surprised how “old fashioned” Lubin sounded in this Chopin
    arrangement — all that droopy portamento, even melisma! But,
    what a voice!

    • richard

      But early in the 20th century, portamento was much more commonly used than it is now.

      It’s fascinating to listen to Nordica singing the Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung (if you can bear listening to the Maplesons) and hear all the portamento she used. I think Wagner singing sounded much different than it does today before Cosima “reformed” it in the early decades of the 20th Century.

    • Harry

      Agreed! Take Melchoir… I would argue if a singer wants a master class how to sing Wagner…go and listen to that Melchoir/Lehmann /Walter conducted Act 1 Walkure. It is desert island material.. Then even when he was elderly…. that clip in the Jane Powell film Luxury Liner where he does it again. Crystal clear perfect diction still, properly weighted and balanced. Nothing changed.

    • Harry

      Now I am sure to throw a tonal tool box full of spanners in the works. I have always been taken aback by Leonine Ryansek’s vocal histrionics. Her delivery always reminded me of someone tending to want to yowl and mote, if given the slightest chance. Like as if , she had just received ‘a good smack on the bum’. The roles she took on, suited her…in ‘that rather characterful ‘signaling emotional distress type of voice’ suggesting a commonality …. Senta , Sieglinde , Electra, Desdemona, Santuzza, Tosca, Strauss’ Empress, etc. there. Though I am not suggesting at the same time, her actual voice was under real physical distress.