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The 500 Hats of Peter Gelb

Is Peter Gelb wearing too many hats? Anthony Tommasini seems to think so, adding that one of those headpieces in particular is ill-fitting and might perhaps more flatteringly perch upon some other head. Call La Cieca suspicious, but she thinks the timing of this piece is hardly an accident.

60 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    The look and feel of the MET-ENO co-productions is as much the fault of John Berry as Peter Gelb.

  • thirdlady says:

    Read the Opera Britannia critique linked above and must say I do always love a review that finds it necessary to summarize the plot of “Faust” before getting down to the nitty gritty. So educational! But I’m having a hard time figuring out from these dire mutterings what, exactly, is the problem with this Des McAnuff production. That the set is (gasp!) “bleak and minimal”? That the time period is (horrors!) “updated”? I don’t quite understand why everyone is treating this like the apocalypse, since I’ve seen other London reviews that were positive. But I guess I’ll find out on Tuesday.

    • FragendeFrau82 says:

      I have to agree with this. The reviews I read of the London production were mostly positive and at least did not say that the production interfered with the ability of the singers to sing and act. I have a friend who went to a rehearsal earlier in the week (not the dress on Friday) and said Pape and Kaufmann sounded terrific.

      I’m looking forward to my first big Met trip on Saturday to see it! (after La Boheme on Friday and Rodelinda on Saturday)

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    My favorite John Dexter story is that when someone approached him in a Carmelites rehearsal he saw Dexter reading the paperback porno book entitled “The Boy who wanted to become a Nun”! The last thing the MET needs is a director of production who does not really know opera inside and out, but that’s what’s gonna happen if indeed the Fuckin Genius relinquishes part of his control or is compelled by the Board to do that.
    http://www.facebook.com
    My other favorite Dexter story was involved standing at the back of the auditorium during a very long performance of Le prophete (with everyone waiting for the finale that fizzled badly) and Berthe entered the prison or dungeon or dark hole of Calcutta, whatever it was, in near total darkness with a blazing torch. People started giggling because it looked so precarious for the singer on the steps and one of the standees loudly exclaimed: “There she is again, still carrying a torch for him” (meaning Jean), provoking more laughter. You had to be there. The production was dreadful.

  • m. p. arazza says:

    One thing Tommasini seems to keep under his hat, at least in the present article, is the question of exactly who’s doing the musical planning these days, determining future seasons’ repertory and so on. Is it to be understood that Gelb now wears that hat too?

  • oedipe says:

    The good thing about simplistic dichotomies is that they can come in handy as starting points for discussions. Thus, the berkshirefinearts.com article quoted above under 1.1.1 makes a distinction between two supposedly clear-cut notions of opera. The first notion, favored by the author of the article, is that opera is “about singing and about an orchestra supporting, guiding and adding emphasis to a story”; the second notion, considered fallacious by the author, is that opera is “theater”, so “changing the setting of an opera to make it more contemporary and meaningful to today’s audience is a worthy effort”. The author concludes that there is a manichean war going on between, on one hand, the “desperate attempt to build new audiences by abandoning the operatic form” and on the other hand, contemporary artists who “know exactly what opera is about and can deliver it”.

    Upon a closer look, these statements are little more than gibberish; nonetheless, some (many?) people seem to think they are full of common sense, so it’s probably useful attempting to deconstruct them. I will pick two statements and make a stab at analyzing one, mainly.

    1) When we “abandon the operatic form”, what does this refer to, exactly? And 2) What is the meaning of “opera is about singing”?

    Let’s take Faust, for instance, since it will be the topic of (long) discussions in the coming days. What is the “operatic form” that is being abandoned in the case of the ENO Faust: The old Met staging? The Paris Lavelli staging? The staging of the opera in Gounod’s time? Are some of the Faust productions at the “Lyric in Chicago, the Santa Fe Opera, and many small and large companies here and abroad” respectful of THE “traditional” operatic form? What tradition are we talking about? Over time, operas have been staged in ways that suit local tastes in different cities in different countries: “traditional” stagings of Faust in America do not comply with French traditions, for instance.

    As for “opera is about singing”, this is even more vague. I will only focus on one aspect: language. Since operas have librettos, by definition language has always been an important factor. But at its beginnings, opera was composed mainly in Italian and, to a lesser extent, in French. The “vernacular” languages -and the relationship between music and language- became increasingly important for opera in the 19th century, with the birth of the “national schools”; the “grand opera” and the “verismo” are, in a way, “national schools”. More recently, the issue of language has become almost controversial for opera composers: for instance, Poulenc would have liked Dialogues to be sung in the language of the place where it was performed; Glass has composed in Sanskrit and ancient languages; Xenakis composed choral ensembles with unintelligible words.

    The matter is not trivial. Language is a complicated thing (the very essence of things, according to some) and its complexity is often reflected in music. Because of this, especially when it comes to 19th and early 20th century opera, a singer cannot do justice to the music by learning a basic vocabulary and an approximate pronunciation of a the language the opera is composed in. There are issues of phrasing, of intonation, of parsing, and of understanding all the nuances of the text. For example, talking about Gounod again, there is a world of difference between Gedda singing Gounod in French, and Corelli singing Gounod in French: great singers both, but Corelli doesn’t sing Gounod, he sings some sort of Italian opera! And it’s NOT just a matter of pronunciation. But this isn’t stopping many opera lovers in America from considering Corelli the greatest interpreter of Gounod! This is a manifestation of local taste, and has nothing to do with absolute criteria and knowing exactly “what singing is about”.

    A recent example: the Munich Hoffmann (with Villazon and Damrau) sounded nothing like a French opera as sung in the style ‘intended by the composer’; the singing style was nondescript (though Damrau did sound very German). Again, pronunciation was NOT the only issue. And this is an example of an opera where the text is incredibly rich and witty, none of which came through.

    So, when we say “opera is about singing”, what kind of singing are we talking about? Singing the right notes independent of the language of the text? Giving an approximation of the (foreign language) text in a style suited to the singer’s own native language? There was a time, not long ago, when many houses staged operas in translation. Maybe that formula was not so bad, after all, especially for the smaller opera houses that cannot afford international casts including native speakers. At least this way singers could really understand what they are singing, and develop their interpretive styles in their own language. I think this would be preferable to having NO style, while supposedly singing in the original language of the opera.

    Then, maybe opera houses could stage productions that are REALLY meaningful to today’s audiences: operas in contemporary settings, with contemporary points of view, translated into the language of the respective place, sung in a style appropriate for that language.

    I’ll end on a video someone posted in the Sena Jurinac thread: an excerpt from Suor Angelica in German. It didn’t sound at all like Puccini, but it was sung in wonderful (German) style:

    • grimoaldo says:

      Well the author of that article does say with reference to Faust:
      ” setting this opera in a time between the first and second world wars, or actually a period which precedes and postcedes them, is not on the face of it wrong. We will see how the production works.”
      It was interesting to me to see that the comment about “abandoning the operatic form” is immediately preceded by a discussion of Poplavskaya: “Others agree that while she is an arresting and electrifying stage presence, she can’t sing. She tends to breathe on every note and wanders all over the place. But she is the kind of singer Gelb looks for: thin, quite attractive (although the chin is a problem and has to be obscured in HDs), and a truly compelling performer as long as you don’t care about the voice.”
      The author thinks Gelb, the star soprano and the director are thinking ONLY of opera as theatre and the music doesn’t even come into it, hence they have cast a leading lady who literally cannot sing. Perhaps this is not quite fair as Poplovskaya is also a big star at Covent Garden but I can see where the author is coming from.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Poplavskaya has, I think, sung better at CG than she has at the Met to date- for example, getting through ‘Sempre Libera’ without having to drop the octave.

        I thought that octave drop was shocking and I’m still astonished that didn’t make more of a stir- I mean, there’s endless to-ing and fro-ing over Netrebko’s trill, but there’s no denying that the world is full of sopranos who can manage to get through the aria at pitch.

        • brooklynpunk says:

          “Poplavskaya has, I think, sung better at CG than she has at the Met to date- ”

          AJ:

          That MIGHT be true..and I can only HOPE it is…

          BUT…

          Ya gotta remember… we have had the (dis) pleasure of hearing her CG gigs, as well, on the internet, which have been -imho- pretty bad….

          ( I actually thought she sounded somewhat better in the NY “DC” then she did in London… but that’s not saying much……)

          • MontyNostry says:

            I’m not sure whether Poplavskaya’s a big star at Covent Garden in the sense that people rush to see her. It’s more that Covent Garden seems to insist on plugging her as some kind of nascent prima donna assoluta because she came up through the Jette Parker programme and had that one big UK success on one evening as Rachel at the Barbican in 2006. (I was there and certainly had the nagging feeling that that was about as good as she was ever going to get.) Whether the public really ‘buys’ her is hard to know. I certainly didn’t buy her as Tatyana a few years ago. On the other hand, any soprano who can make that particular character unsympathetic really does have a unique talent.

    • Indiana Loiterer III says:

      I’m bewildered by the notion that changing the setting of a production is tantamount to “abandoning operatic form”. I mean, I don’t see it; if people are still singing the music as directed in the score, there’s still an opera going on--the only way you could say that operatic form was being abandoned would be if they no longer sang even while the costumes and sets were perfectly in period. And if opera is simply about the music, what difference does it make whether the costumes are in period or not? Why not just perform the opera in concert? I can understand a strictly theatrical case for period productions--though it’s a case that applies as much to straight plays as to operas--but why should a traditional production be considered more “musical” than a revisionist production?

      • grimoaldo says:

        “I’m bewildered by the notion that changing the setting of a production is tantamount to “abandoning operatic form”.”
        The article does not say that Indiana, the author explicitly says in fact “setting this opera in a time between the first and second world wars, or actually a period which precedes and postcedes them, is not on the face of it wrong. We will see how the production works.”
        The author says that Gelb, McAnuff and Poplavskaya
        spoke at this panel discussion ONLY about the acting and the theatrical side of things with no reference or seeming awareness at all that music was involved anywhere in the mix at all and that the “abandonment of the form” is shown by the fact that the star soprano cannot actually sing.
        I know I said much the same thing in my last post but it seems like there are quite a few people who are not actually reading the article. Not to say I agree with it but I do think there have been a depressingly large number of execrably sung performances from star sopranos at the Met recently.