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Senior moment

Being an opera lover in Los Angeles is a lot like being a Red Sox fan.  As hard as they try we never make it to the World Series, let alone the playoffs. The Chandler family who owned the LA Times, and in particular Dorothy “Buffie” Chandler who raised the money to build the Music Center downtown, and put her name on its biggest theater there in a stunning display of humility, weren’t opera fans. They loved the LA Philharmonic and, of course, we had to have a suitable holy shrine for the Oscar ceremony because this is an industry town. The New York City Opera would visit in the summers from ‘66 to ‘82 but the Chandlers, and Buffie in particular, actually discouraged an opera company. We had to essentially wait for her to slip into senility before someone could start one. That finally happened in 1986 when Peter Hemmings and Placido Domingo started the LA Opera and things began to change. Very gradually.  

We’ve had some great productions but there’s always been something wanting. For the first decade the orchestra was pretty awful and no one in the audience knew where to applaud. They still don’t know how to dress.  When the company would attempt something musically major like Wagner or Berg they’d actually hire the Philharmonic for the pit.  Then there’s the advertising that’s strictly bush league.  It’s hard to take a company seriously that mounts a major production of Berlioz’s epic, hires Charles Dutoit to conduct, and calls it The Trojans.  We don’t even get the ‘und’ in Wagner’s opera, it’s Tristan AND Isolde.  The cultural equivalent of a buzz kill as far as I’m concerned.

We’ve gotten a lot of package deals with directors or tenors foisting their wives on us in roles, both in front of and behind the curtain, that they weren’t suited for.  My first Fidelio was with Karan Armstrong as Leonore who was married to the director of the production, Götz Friedrich.  She couldn’t even make it through to the end of ” Aubscheulicher!”.  Don’t get me started on Petra-Maria Schnitzer’s Ariadne just so we could have Peter Seiffert as Bacchus in the Strauss. Mrs. Domingo directs.  Not sure anyone else noticed.  We had an unknown Isolde making a role debut who hasn’t been heard from since.

So, no surprise that Uncle Placido should decide to include Los Angeles on his Simon Boccanegra World Tour.  Since he started singing the baritone lead in this opus in 2009 this may well be the most well documented portrayal of any singer in an operatic role since Maria Callas in Traviata, including commercial DVD’s from The Met, Covent Garden, and La Scala. The only reason I went was because I was gifted with a ticket.

Which brings me to the topic of coin.  At the LA Opera it’s all about the money and I’d like to know where it goes exactly ? The walls of the Music Center and the Dorothy Chandler are like a mausoleum of long dead contributors. The program for Boccanegra literally lists hundreds of donors. When you sit down at your seat there’s a credit roll on the super-title screen that mentions all the biggest benefactors for the evening, Rolex, Eli & Edith Broad, the Annenberg’s, the Getty’s. Now, I did see a great performance of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West that was sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank but that was the only time it was actually appropriate. Frankly, it’s just vulgar and it diminishes whatever artistic attempts are made. We had a 25th Anniversary Gala with tables on the stage. No audience in the theatre.  Very cliquey. It’s also the kind of place where you discover that people like Chevy Chase and Jo Anne Worley are big opera fans.

For this we get Elijah Moshinsky’s borrowed Covent Garden production from 1991 with a serviceable semi-unit set cleverly designed by Micheal Yeargan and sumptuous, for us, costumes by Peter J. Hall. It’s a big step up from our average production values which are just a tad above School Holiday Pageant.  You can see our company’s Traviata on DVD: it’s sad.

Thank goodness for those supertitles too because in this opera you need them.  I’m pretty sure there are members of the cast who wonder what’s going on halfway through this epic.  Plausibility runs pretty low but it is a beautiful score even if you can see the seams where Piave and Boito meet.

First, we had the luxury of Paolo Gavanelli as the villainous Paolo.  He made a magnificent impression from his first hushed utterance in the prologue to his last march to the gallows in the final act. The prosciutto is sliced pretty thick in this role and he took advantage of every moment. His curse in the council chamber scene was just what you’d want.

Then, our Fiesco is Vitalij Kowaljow who was the Wotan in the Ring Cycle here last year. He’s got a really beautiful rolling bass and he poured forth in “Il lacerto spirito” all the way down to Verdi’s low G-flat. He easily commanded the Italian style and the stage, worked his cape like a pro, and did some of his best singing in the religious duet in Act I with the Gabrielle Adorno, Stefano Secco who was making his LA Opera debut.  Secco has a bright, bantam-weight sound that was very even top to bottom.  Although he may be lacking a little bloom in the high part of his voice he negotiated his fairly thankless aria well and did some extraordinary piano singing above the staff in the final act.

When I saw Domingo as Siegmund in the Ring here I left the theater thinking to myself that it was most certainly the last time I would see him live.  His performance in the Walkure was nothing short of astonishing for a man of 69 but you could tell it was hard work.  Unburdened as Boccanegra with the tenorial tessitura he exhibits a freedom and grace onstage that continues to amaze. In the prologue I almost didn’t believe it was he at first.  He bounded about the stage in a dark wig like a man half his years.

As the evening continued you could see why he wanted to play this part and what a perfect fit it makes for him. He still sings honestly with his own, now very burnished, burgundy tenor voice but his musicianship and breath make you aware of how spoiled we’ve been and perhaps have taken this very great artist a little bit for granted in his normal repertoire.  I was sorry they chose to costume him in a tea cozy once his character took the throne and but then was grateful for the padding when he threw himself to the stage, on his back no less, at the finale of his death scene. I think he slid two feet. I figured he’d just slump over on the nearby bench but he wanted to make certain we all got our money’s worth.

In 2005 I enjoyed a raucous performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Santa Fe with a good cast.  I remember being off put by the fact that that I was seeing a soprano Rosina, which I thought was old school  and although she sang well, it wasn’t memorable enough for it to register.  Only later did I realize that this was the same artist I saw as Amelia Grimaldi on Thursday night.  Ana Maria Martinez is unrecognizable as the chirping colouratura I encountered seven years ago in New Mexico.

She has matured into a baby Verdi soprano of magnificent facility and a dead center accuracy of pitch. Listening to her makes you aware of how many singers attack every note from below as a matter of technique and style.  She made short work of her opening aria with its ungainly note spans and in the penultimate phrase unleashed the first of many of the evening’s stunning pianissimi.  She moved beautifully and her singing displayed a rare poise and delicious sense of strength held in reserve. In short, I have a new diva to worship.  I cannot wait to hear her again.

James Conlon led the orchestra well in a spacious and autumnal reading that didn’t lack fire when needed.  He’s most definitely a singer’s conductor and his support was apparent throughout in little ways that encouraged the cast to do their best. The chorus seemed a tad underpowered but that’s nothing new, I assure you.  Very evocative lighting by Duane Schuler including a nifty effect on the drop curtain during the prelude.

Lot’s of torches and gloom.  I’ll have to seek out the Covent Garden DVD now.

Photo by Robert Millard.

149 comments

  • Lalala says:

    Absolutely, she sings with her husband a great deal of the time (I believe she’s appearing in Berlin at this time in Tannhauser). No question there. However, as I originally stated, she is still active on the scene (contrary to what the writer of this post might believe).

  • Feldmarschallin says:

    Just for the record it is Tristan and she actually got a great review on operacake believe it or not. I have yet to hear anything decent let alone great from her but I digress.

  • tiger1dk says:

    It is like the circle of life. First Mr Seiffert gets good connections and (I would assume) some engagements based on his marriage to Lucia Popp (maybe his recording of Eisenstein with her as Rosalinde on EMI) -- and now his somewhat younger wife gets engagements based on her marriage to him. Maybe one day she will get a young tenor husband and, thus, the circle of life can continue….

  • MonCoeurSouvreATaVoix says:

    Sorry about the LA Opera. Really, what a mess. You may find some solace in that some audience members here at the Met are clueless about what constitutes proper attire. Last night I saw a great number of people in jeans, sloppy, fugly outerwear, their worst rain shoes, and yet more blue jeans, particularly on heavy people.

    Yeah, I go to the opera for the show, but I also enjoy seeing people a bit dressed up. It’s a break from what I have to put up with on the subway. So… I hope you do get some solace from this. These messy opera-goers are horrid, probably as horrid as those in LA.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      Moncoeur: I had fights about this subject on opera-l (or was it here?). I feel as you do, that it’s nice to get a bit dressed up to go to the opera. They really gave it to me when I said that going to the opera in jeans and T-shirt is not acceptable, imo.
      I don’t mind jeans if they go with a nice shirt and jacket-- I dress like that all the time.
      But jeans, T-shirt and sneakers is a bit much. They argue their clothes are clean and they want to be “comfortable.” I say YUCH!
      I guess I come from a different generation, when people more often dressed up rather than down.
      I think it’s fun top look nice, not like a SLOB!

      • Clita del Toro says:

        PS at a Ring at the Met, I sat next to a guy in shorts--it was not pretty!

      • kashania says:

        I’ve of two minds when it comes to dressing for the opera. On the one hand, I believe that people should have the freedom to dress however they like but on the other hand, I believe that I should have the right to look down my nose at the jeans-and-tshirt-wearing people. This “balanced” approach has served me well. LOL

        • oedipe says:

          Question: what does well dressed mean to people here?
          I have a feeling it’s a sort of dogma to some, like “traditional” versus “Eurotrash” productions.
          I have seen people in jeans and a jacket who looked more elegant than people in tacky evening attire. The cut, the fit, the line, the quality and the accessories make all the difference in the world. To me, being well dressed is looking attractive and stylish, preferably with a touch of wit and sexiness; whether it’s jeans, a tux, an evening dress, or a cardigan.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Oedipe, exactly! You hit the nail on the head concerning dress. Also, looking good today is somewhat different from looking good in the 50′s. But, it always does take a “a touch of wit” and a bit of care to look nice.
            Some people (too many these days) don’t give a sh** about how they look long as they are comfortable. Just come to Chicago during the summer and see all the gross Americans walking down Michigan Ave. It’s scary.

    • tiger1dk says:

      MonCoeur etc, I thought James Conlon was musical director (or something similar) at the LAO -- isn’t he a pretty decent conductor?

      About the clothing, is there any evidence AT ALL that the patrons at the LAO dress any worse than at other US opera houses? When my partner and I used to attend the State Opera in Warsaw, Poland, quite often (not so long ago, 2004-6), we found it very enjoyable to watch the audience -- so many of them had really dressed up but in this somewhat old-fashioned East-European way. We also often enjoyed what was on stage (and nothing more than Damnation de Faust in the production by Achim Freyer -- that was also shown at the LAO, I believe -- so here is your connection).

      Thanks, Manou, for the lovely clip.

      • MonCoeurSouvreATaVoix says:

        I was going to write something else entirely in reply to you, but then I noticed that I felt as though I had to put a shield on to go to combat.

        I’m not sure why you are offended that I don’t know the name and qualifications of the musical director of the LAO, but my question was aimed at asking about the problem and never posed in a combative manner. If my ignorance annoys you, then I don’t know what to do.

        As to the quantitative evidence about dressing up or down in U.S. opera houses, I don’t know of any way of doing this, so again, I don’t know what to reply to your combative question about EVIDENCE.

        I enjoy this blog and so do many others, and the majority do not answer in a combative manner. If you respond in that way to me again, I will not reply.

  • MonCoeurSouvreATaVoix says:

    Question.
    Who is the musical director out there? Why can’t Uncle Plácido get a decent conductor in there for you guys?

  • xcountarchosx says:

    Domingo singing another baritone role? Awesome. He attaches himself to whatever company he can, he conducts and puts himself into a baritone role, takes their money, then leaves. He’s a leech. There are plenty of ACTUAL baritones that can sing that role. He’s always been a tenor with screams for high notes i will never understand his fame. But saying he’s got his tenor tessitura is incorrect he’s got more of a high lyric baritone tessitura now except with nothing on top but a wobbly G or maybe a screamed high A. Sorry i prefer to hear Tom Hampson singing Iago as horrendous as it’ll be than Placido singing anything baritone because at least Hampson is somewhat of a baritone though i don’t even believe that.

    • tiger1dk says:

      Well, Mr Domingo has been singing Simon Boccanegra at La Scala, Covent Garden, Berlin and the Met -- and soon also Zurich -- amazing that he can “attach himself” to all these companies. And then he takes their money and leaves -- so in what way is that different from other singers? I assume Mr Hampson also takes the money of the companies where he sings? And what is this about leaving? To my knowledge, Mr Domingo has sung more than 40 years at most of the companies I just mentioned -- actually, most Domingo-detractors would probably complain about him taking the money and then NOT leaving…

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Himself can sing wherever and whatever he wants. He is a bore now and was a bore then! Never cared for his singing. (big surprise, lol).

      • xcountarchosx says:

        Uhhh no sorry no other singer becomes a director of a company then puts himself to conduct and sing and then leaves like he did in Washington. All he does is screw companies over. He’s an awful conductor and singer. He has no high notes now which is why he sings baritone roles instead of retiring gracefully. Leontyne did it right. This old bag could learn a thing or two from her. And Zurich is a joke. Hampson has sung Scarpia there as well as Macbeth and Iago. For some reason he has attained a godlike status where he can do no wrong. Domingo i mean. Same with Hampson who screams out F#’s now in Di Provenza as well as in Iago and Macbeth. Sorry but i don’t believe either of them should be singing anymore. Domingo should retire and Hampson should just sing lieder or retire as well because he barely has any voice left.

        • tiger1dk says:

          How wonderful the different ways we hear things. According to xcountarchosx Domingo is an “an awful … singer” and an “old bag” (got to admire the elegant way with words, xcountarchosx) whereas he accoring to Patrick “exhibits a freedom and grace onstage that continues to amaze [in a part that is] a perfect fit … He still sings honestly with his own, now very burnished, burgundy tenor voice but his musicianship and breath make you aware of how spoiled we’ve been and perhaps have taken this very great artist a little bit for granted in his normal repertoire.”

          One could argue, I guess, that when there are still operalovers like Patrick Mack who apparently finds a lot to enjoy in Domingo’s performing, even now, then there is no reason for him to retire as there is nobody forcing xcountarchosx to listen to him.

  • CEinNYC says:

    What a horribly esoteric and uninviting review. Patrick, way to further raise that barrier of entry to opera.