Headshot of La Cieca

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Past imperfect

One of my adolescent pastimes was trolling the classical cut-out bins in record stores searching for overlooked gems or unfamiliar singers. Our local shop always seemed to have some old Cetra boxed sets featuring names such as Ebe Stignani, Giovanni Malipiero, Tancredi Pasero and Giulio Neri, who not only provided valuable reference points for my young ears but poignantly reconnected my European parents with their youths.  

It’s tempting to view these performances of Verdi, verismo and bel canto as somehow definitive. They have an idiomatic conviction that’s seldom duplicated today, except maybe by a singer like Ferruccio Furlanetto. And while the quality of the casts varied, it’s easy to overlook the tinny orchestral sound or questionable interpretive liberty when you’re soon enough transported by a rousing chorus or a exquisitely-paced trio or quartet.

The first four of 18 Cetra releases Warner Music plans to issue this year provided a nostalgic reunion with label’s post-war efforts, and an early palate pleaser ahead of the Verdi bicentennial. Though they probably won’t supplant any reference recordings in my collection, the releases capture key moments in the careers of important singers and ladle dollops of aural red sauce to listeners convinced today’s fare is just so much ketchup and water.

A 1954 Rigoletto captures the sweet tone and remarkable legato of Ferruccio Tagliavini before he started taking on heavier roles that are often blamed for ruining his career. “Questa o quella” and “La donna e mobile” are each dispatched with predictable flair, but Tagliavini really stands out for the way he stylishly anchors the third act quartet, including a ravishing “Bella figlia dell’ amore.”

Giuseppe Taddei’s jester may not match the raw fury of Tito Gobbi’s but is tender and heartbreaking in the second act scene during which Gilda confesses her lost honor and again, at the finale, on discovering that his revenge plot has gone horribly awry. Brooklyn-born Lina Pagliughi, at the tail end of her career, plays Gilda with a certain exaggerated daintiness but dramatically rises to the level of her cast mates in the third act. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI delivers a bracing accompaniment under Angelo Questa, though the mono sound and forward miking of the principals leaves the accompaniment sounding distant.

La battaglia di Legnano from 1951 was long the reference recording for this seldom-performed opera until Philips released its late 1970s set with Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli. Issued on the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death, it features the underrated Caterina Mancini as the ill-fated Lida, stuck in an unhappy marriage and in love with the knight Arrigo, whose only wish is to die protecting the Fatherland against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa.

Garibaldi stated the historic Battle of Legnano was an inspiration for his own effort to unify Italy, and Verdi’s score bristles with obvious references to the Risorgimento. Mancini is at her full-throated, agile best in Act 1’s “Quante volte come un dono” — an aria that became something of a calling card for Leyla Gencer a decade later.

The sturdy baritone Rolando Panerai, whose career spanned nearly six decades, delivers a spirited account of the Act 3 aria and cabaletta “Se al nuovo di pugnando” while Amedeo Berdini acquits himself well as the obtuse Arrigo, nailing “La pia materno mano,” perhaps the best-known piece in the opera. Unfortunately, not even the strong conducting of Fernando Previtali with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI can make a strong case for the work, which mostly references events offstage and suffers from an inferior libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.

More satisfying is a 1956 Aida with a young Franco Corelli, a decade before he recorded Radames with Birgit Nilsson for EMI. Though he hadn’t yet ironed out his conspicuous vibrato, the tenor’s top notes have a brilliant squillo, highlighting a portrayal that’s equal parts legato, power and style. There also are some classic soft diminuendos that can melt butter. With the good comes some bad. Corelli loiters on some high notes and adds a few unwritten ones in the Triumphal scene. His lifelong tendency toward scooping, under-the-note attacks is also quite obvious.

The rest of the cast would frankly have us turning backflips if they materialized today. Miriam Pirazzini, part of a golden age of Italian mezzos, may have been overshadowed by Giulietta Simionato and Fedora Barbieri but proves herself a totally gripping Amneris. “Maria” Curtis Verna, who had a distinguished career on both sides of the Atlantic, delivers a committed account of the title role, even if she could use a little more vocal color and shows some strain at the top.

Neri is an awesome Ramfis, and Gian Giacomo Guelfi an imposing Amonasro. As in the Rigoletto, Questa and the Turin orchestra manage to stay out of trouble while keeping the drama flowing and never getting bogged down in sentimentality.

Maria Callas had a brief association with Cetra that yielded her only studio recording of La traviata, in 1953. Not only were the results mediocre but the company prohibited her from re-recording the opera for five years after the release, forcing us to rely on live recordings to chart her development as Violetta.

The Cetra version is handicapped by the almost comically plodding conducting of Gabriele Santini, who makes a hash of most of the third act, including a somnolent “Addio del passato.” Callas’ “Sempre libera” has brilliant top notes but sounds oddly forced and squally. Other arias such as “Dite alla giovene” sound just plain uninspired. Ugo Savarese is a serviceable Germont in the pivotal Act 2 duet, while Francesco Albanese is an unmemorable Alfredo. Stick with the remastered live performances from La Scala, Lisbon and Covent Garden, which each have far more complete portrayals with better supporting casts.

The next installment of Cetra releases include Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in Il trovatore and Luisa Miller, a 1941 Forza del destino with Maria Caniglia and Stignani and a 1951 Un giorno di regno. Though they’ll surely provide more summertime fodder for vocal history buffs, their greatest value may be connecting younger listeners to an era of grand voices, uninhibited portrayals and big hearts.

75 comments

  • WindyCityOperaman says:

    My two favorite Cetras are ones that would not be replicated by other record companies (at least none that I’m aware of), namely two verismo vehicles Mascagni’s Il Piccolo Marat (Gismondo, Rossi-Lemeni, Zeani) and Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo (Mazza Medici, Lo Forese and Zanasi) which remained imported monophonic Cetras and were never transferred to the wretched-sounding electronic stereorized Everest LPs that the more popular operas did. A bonus on the CD reissue of the Zandonai are highlights from Zandonai’s Conchita with American soprano Gloria Davy (who like Vera Little and Mattiwilda Dobbs, had more of a career in Europe than here). I did finally retrieve the CDs of Gina Cigna’s famous Norma recording -- fascinating to hear how the opera was expected to be performed in those pre-war days. The Cetra operas are historic gems that deserve to be heard.

  • zinka says:

    At around 17, I spent all my money on Cetra..They were called “Fair Trade” and were 5.95 each LP….I sent a letter to Mancini and got an answer.She was the first “wild soprano” I heard…Battaglia,Nabucco,Ernani,etc…and all those Cetras were a blessing in my early opera-loving….since in 1951 f0r the Verdi year (He died in 1951) Cetra RAI put out all those operas..plus in other works we had Cigna, Carteri, Malipiero..and i discovered Stignani,Taddei,etc……I cannot ever forget those eary recordings in my youth…..

  • I am Glad to hear that Warner is going to continue releasing these. For many years I would go to the Chicago Tower records to but the. Several years ago a sudden lack of money forced me to sell about a third of my collection and i refused to sell any of my Cetras. It would be nice if there was a complete list of their recordings. The ones I have are:

    Sonnambula: Pagliughi, Tagliavini, Siepi (beautiful)
    L’arlesiana: Tagliavini, Tassinari
    Chenier: Soler, Tebaldi, Savarese
    Amico Fritz: Tagliavini, Tassinari, (with the unfortunate substitution of Dottore for rabbino)
    Boheme: Carteri, Tagliavini, Taddei, Ramella
    Suor Angel;ica: Carteri
    Tosca: Frazzoni, Tagliavini, Guelfi (wild)
    Falstaff: Taddei, Carteri, Pagliughi (glorious Sul Fil)
    Traviata: Callas et all (and I love her in the recording)
    Trovatore: Lauri Volpi, Mancini, Tagliabue, Pirazzini

    I also Understand they have an Otello (I saw it and never bought it), a Pagliacci with a newly minted tenor by the name of Bergonzi, A wild Giovanni with Italo Tajo, Turandot, Boccanegra with Stella and bergonzi, Lucia, Nabucco, Werther, Matha, Carmen (these last 3 in Italian, as should be expected), Zaza, Giorno di regno, Ernani, Le vili, Cenerentola (with Simionato) Fedora, A Second Tosca with Poggi, Nozze, Manon Lescaut (With Petrella), and I am sure I have missed a whole bunch….

    • armerjacquino says:

      I would LOVE to hear a Carteri ANGELICA.

      • You know, that is exactly what I thought when I bought it. It is beautiful but for what I remember a little placid, even after she drinks the poison.

        This Angelica was Carteris first recording ever if I am not wrong. She was all of 23-25 when it was made.

        Send me an email through my blog…

        • armerjacquino says:

          How hugely kind of you- although I’m actually downloading the recording from the Bel Canto Society site as we speak. By the look of things, Carteri was only TWENTY when the recording was made! Different times…

          • Krunoslav says:

            Armer-- It’s worth hearing but, indeed, a little less than inspired when set next to Scotto or Soviero blazing away.

            But as I said Petrella’s Giorgietta on the accompanying TABARRO is *really* exciting.

            And look what Youtube offers:

          • Camille says:

            What an ideal Giorgetta, indeed!
            It is hard for me to comprehend, that after many decades, at last there is an opportunity to see this remarkable artist, as well as to have heard her, on my ancient, scratched Cetra LPs.

            Thank you for giving that ten year old girl who once listened to this in a state of awe, the rest of the picture. After all those long years, it makes sense.

  • paddypig says:

    no one also mentioned the scotto,kraus, bastianini rigoletto or the lucia with scotto,there is also a rossini messe with scotto and a short one act opera with scotto (cannot remember the name now) many of these have been on cd before either here or in europe. I have the SUOR ANGELICA with Carteri, The GIANNI SCHICCHI, Three of the Scotto recordings including the LUCIA, RIGOLETTO AND Pergolosi opera, The AIDA with Corelli was also released on another label sometime ago. bought it thru Berkshire. The two Callas recordings are included in the Callas 70cd set of all her studio recordings released by EMI

    • phoenix says:

      And where have you been, paddy? Over the past few days we have reminiscing about things you have 1st hand experience with and I am sure are an authority on …

      • paddypig says:

        while i read the site regularly, i find being an old stick in the mud who prefers traditional productions and old fashioned Italian singing, that I get shot down on this site too often by the regie crowd. I don’t get bored with traditional LA BOHEMEs or LA TRAVIATA with hoop skirts, I go for singers with personality. I don’t go to TOSCA to see Luc Bondy’s twisted vision but to see in recent years, Millo, or Casolla,Marton, Dessi or a dozen others to see their interpretation of Tosca, I am a fan of the operas and a big fan of singers, i love the RAI recordings, the Cetra recordings and grew up loving Scotto, Rysanek, Price, Caballe, Freni, Pavarotti, Domingo and the recordings of Nilsson, Callas, Olivero, Del Monaco and Corelli. I find I am out of sync with the current attitudes towards opera on this site. I recall a story, about twelve years ago I received a bootleg copy on VHS of Renata’s SUOR ANGELICA from the MET, I was at one of those performances and still count it as one of the most sublime moments I have ever had in the opera house. My friend who is about my age and had been there also turned to me and she said “I never wanted to be one of those people who says it was better twenty years ago- but sadly this is proof that things were better than” Afraid I agree with her. I used to go to the MET four nights a week in the 80′s and early 90′s, I went to six performances this season. I like a Traviata set in Paris or TOSCA that is set on July 1 1800, if the singers are interesting. saw a lovely TOSCA in Budapest last year, basically traditional production with a knock out blood and guts performance (with bizarre Italian ) by a Hungarian singer named Esther Sumargi, she had passion. recent performances that really gave me that high, were the ELEKTRA at the Philarmonic with Polaski and Henschal and the Salome with Stemme at Carnegie Hall. I recently chatted with a very successful soprano who sang with Italian touring companies in Italy, Egypt, South and Central America, she sang with Gigli, Cappuccilli, Managuerra, Barbieri, Menscheri and Olivero among others. She told me fabulous stories about her performances including a Tosca in Costa Rica where she accidently really stabbed Menscheri as Scarpia and destroyed his costume (in those days singers traveled with their own costumes and normally she used a real knife but quickly turned the knife around and stabbed Scarpia with the handle but that night, suffering from a cold and having taking some medicaton was a bit out of it) She confessed that she finds very few performances today that exciting; the singers play too safe and don’t really throw themselves into the performances. So even singers that might be faulted for technical problems, like Mancini, or Caniglia, or more recently Stapp, Soviero or Flanigan, at least give the audience everything they have and have passion. you cannot have passion as a performer when you are hampered by a regie produciton and expected to just fit in with the director’s concept (ala Voigt and the silly black dress) So now i have explained why i don’t comment too often, I am a proud dinosaur of the opera world and know what I enjoy.

        • phoenix says:

          paddy, thanks for the good stories! No matter how hard we try to stay in the vanguard of things, in some ways all of us fall into the dinosaur mode whether we realize it or not. I know Voigt is no worse than most of the house singers from the past, but so much of the time she sounds awful to me -- and once in awhile quite decent -- but not often enough to be the ballyhooed prima donna of any house, let alone the Met.
          - I heard Eszter Sumegi as Aida (Pittsburgh 2008) but unfortunately she got cold feet -- or maybe she was ill, I never figured it out. The best peformances I have heard from her (and many were excellent) came off the Bartók Magyar rádió internet stream.

          I listen to her on

          • phoenix says:

            I listen to her still on Bartók Magyar rádió.

          • Bill says:

            Eszter Sumegi was an excellent Arabella in
            the premiere of a new production of that
            opera in Budapest in March -- I have heard
            her in a number of roles, as Mimi, Elsa,
            Elisabeth, the Marschallin etc. but Arabella
            was her absolutely best assumption of any
            role to date -- I was quite surprised how excellent her singing was -- luscious tone from
            top to bottom. She would probably make a
            good Kaiserin (rumored that Frau ohne Schatten
            is being considered for the future in Budapest in a production borrowed or copied from Essen).

        • stevey says:

          You’re not alone, Paddy! I’m in my 30′s, very bright and have lived rather an interesting life already, but in terms of opera I’m happy to accept that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, and it was nice to read your comments as I sometimes wonder if we are, indeed, a dying breed.

          Taking nothing away from those who feel otherwise, I most DEFINITELY don’t feel that I either need or want to be ‘challenged’, or taught, or shown something radically new and different when I go to the opera and, in fact, when it DOES happen, I’m usually rather mildly offended as I invariably come away wondering wistfully why they couldn’t just let the wonder and genius that that opera is just stand and sing and be for itself. I’m coming to an opera to hopefully hear and see a magnificent performance, and if only that were to happen I would be happy. I don’t know why that just doesn’t seem to be enough for a lot of people anymore. I am not there to learn some what message some clever person has to say, or find out what their take and spin on things happens to be, and to see how brilliantly they use the opera to express that. Can’t you find a clever and creative way to do that WITHOUT using Verdi??

          I find opera timeless and, for me, the music and stories- the history- warrant my deep and abiding respect. As such I don’t have any need or desire to have them be anything other than what they are and have been in the in-some-cases hundreds and hundreds of years since they were composed.

          Whenever I see an opera, I feel like I am a part of history- Kings, Statesmen, Artists, Thinkers, storied people from all walks of life that are now consigned to history once watched and experienced the VERY same music and story that I am now, and in all likelihood felt and experienced the very same emotions in doing so. That’s pretty damn cool, and to know that I’m now a part of that is special enough for me. To watch a Regie-fied production of the same just doesn’t feel the same and, though it may be more stimulating, challenging, enlightened, thought-provoking, progressive, radical, or whatever… that’s not what I want MY opera to be about. (That’s why I have books and movies, amongst other things…) For ME, the operas as they were composed lifetimes ago, and the genius of the men who did so- is enough. And as such I’m happy if my music and my music’s story is just that, and I feel honored to be a part of it when it is.

          Also, I don’t know about anybody else but, for me, it’s usually like pulling teeth to get ANYBODY in my life to give my music a chance… for some reason most everybody that I’ve known run screaming from me like I have plague if they feel I’m about to inflict some opera on them. In spite of this, and with the exception of my very first Met Performance (the ill-fated snowbound ‘Elektra’), I always, always, ALWAYS buy two tickets to an opera performance I’m going to attend. I figure I already sort-of know what I’m going to go through as I experience this which I know and love… but how much more of a wonderful experience to be able to bring it to someone else, to share it with them, and to hopefully let it affect them as it does me! But, invariably, it’s like pulling teeth to find anybody ‘willing’ to come with me… more often than not, the person who would AGREE to come with me felt they were doing so more as a favor to me so that my money doesn’t go to waste… but I never really cared, though. It was like- “just experience this, please! It’s a GOOD thing!!!” My god, I remember one performance, the COC ‘Fliegende Hollander’ back in the late 90′s- I was in my early, early 20′s and I literally couldn’t even BRIBE any of my friends to go with me. I wound up standing outside the Hummingbird Centre until the last possible minute hoping that my cell phone would ring, and when I realized that nobody was going to call to take me up on my offer at the last minute I went up to a homeless guy and asked if he wanted to come in and watch the opera, just so the ticket wouldn’t go to waste. He did, I realize now undoubtedly just to get out of the cold, only to fall fast asleep during the performance, snoring like a buzzsaw… you can only imagine my mortification. If there were any sharp implements around I would most assuredly have grabbed it and then just tried to decide which of my arteries I should open first (a sentiment I felt again the same night when- at the end of the performance- the Erik shot and kills the Senta. Sigh…). I have had people who were curious about the whole experience, though… and those are the people I would get most excited about taking. But it frustrates me that they aren’t given the chance to experience the operas the true way the composer had originally intended, and to possibly understand and realize for themselves why they are so timeless and special, and to be a part of that history that I was talking about earlier.

          I flew up from Central America to catch the COC’s Aida, and bought a ticket for a very old friend who has seen countless musicals, concerts, etc., but never ‘the real thing’, to catch it with me. He LOVED Aida, having- as he said- watched the Sophia Loren movie (with Tebaldi and Stignani as the female protagonist voices) so many times growing up that it probably bordered on autism. He was so excited, and as such so was I. When the curtain came up, the prelude started, and there’s Sondra Radvanovsky in a tattered shift and barefoot, mopping the stage and dragging her mop bucket along with her… I didn’t know what to tell him! When, instead of dancing slaves there were martini swilling socialites tumbling upon chaise lounges and ottomans I also didn’t know what to say. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to tell him to ignore whatever plot synopsis he might have read before the start of the grand Triumphal Stage which was instead I think supposed to be some ‘Aida’s nightmare’ and consisted of her being pushed and shoved, tormented and generally mauled about by high society people and lawyers (the priests were lawyers). I felt gypped for my friend that night. I was sorry that he didn’t get to see his- or Verdi’s- Aida. And I wonder how many other people who decided to branch out and experience something new like opera have been put off by a performance hijacked by somebody who wants to cleverly use that opera to stimulate, or challenge, or put forth different ideas, as fantastic as they may be.

          A common complaint and excuse I have come across that people would have for not wanting to experience opera more was that they thought it was ‘boring’… these people have usually never seen or experienced an whole opera. But I find it telling that for people who tell me that they HAVE, in fact, attended some operas before, when asked why they’re not interested in going anymore- on more occasions that I care to admit, these people’s reply is that it is because it is “pretentious”. “Elitest” is another one. The thing is- and without agreeing with them in the slightest- I must admit that I sometimes do see what they mean, or at least how they could come to that conclusion.

          Now, this is unquestionably NOT an ‘anti-regie’ tirade, nor against those who prefer more non-traditional productions. There is unquestionably some bold, exciting, ground-breaking, intense, thought provoking, even brilliant stuff being produced out there using as their muse these lifetime’s-old works… and I hope the people that want to experience that kind of thing do, and enjoy it. It just isn’t my cup of tea, Paddypig, and it was nice to read your comment and know EXACTLY what you meant.

          Until then, I’ll wait patiently for Toronto to stage a Verdi’s Aida with livestock, a triumph scene that would do Cecil B. deMille proud, palm trees, princesses that look like princesses, slaves that look like slaves, and all that other stuff that so impressed and wowed those people on that first day over 140 years ago, when Teresa Stolz, Giuseppe Fancelli, and Maria Waldmann walked out onto the stage and started to sing.
          I owe my friend an Aida.

          Unfortunately, I have a feeling I’ll be waiting for a very long time… (hope he can content himself with his Sophia Loren).

          Wow. Where did THAT all come from?? (lol)
          Thanks, everybody, for letting me share that with the gang, and I hope that nothing I said offended anybody or left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth… it’s all just my opinion, (and we all know what those are worth!) :-)

          • paddypig says:

            it so good to hear, what so many people forget on this site is that the majority of the audience is experiencing the opera for the first time even if it is there 3,459th performance of traviata. as a newbie I would be totally lost as to why you like opera if I had seen the AIDA you describe as my first AIDA, l recently saw the MET production again, having also appeared in it approximately 50 times. I was with a friend who had heard but never seen AIDA,and another friend who at close to 90 has seen a hundred AIDA’s . WE all loved it. Traditional, perhaps uninventive by most critics standards, and with a second string cast of oversized old fashioned singers, Urmana, Zajick and Botha, the wonder of AIDA was there. The Scotto Traviata that I was vilified for liking captured the essence of Traviata, even if frugally. The Decker production to me is a boring concept that is tired and drummed into your head after ten minutes. CLOCK, WHITE WALL, DOCTOR GRENVIL AS DEATH, I GET IT!!!!. i was in a wonderful tradional production of FAUST at Lake George Opera with Diana Soviero, Donnie Ray Albert and Herbert Beattie alternating as Mephistofeles and the understudy for FAUST was Jerry Hadley. even in English, it was a powerful production that held the audience in its grips every night. the recent debacle at the MET was just painful. and anyone seeing it for the first time would wonder why anyone likes FAUST. The joy of being transported back in time to a certain time and place is part of the thrill of opera. Like Dumas taking us to medievil Paris or Dickens to 19th century London, Opera can take us into a world long gone (TOSCA or LA TRAVIATA)or imaginary (TURANDOT). While I have seen some updates that worked (at NYCO the Carmen set during the spanish civil war or the CAV/PAG set in Little Italy) most of them are tired and silly (who really thinks it is original to set TOSCA during the fascist or Nazi era- it is so done) Opera does work, (I could go off on another tangent and explain the lack of a young audience has more to do with the lack of music education in schools -- and I am an educator- than the fact that opera isn’t seen as relevant. How many kids today have real music programs in school or are encouraged or forced to take piano lessons or violin lessons. it is all facebook and computer games. Culture isn’t dying because it isn’t relevant, it is dying because education in america is in the toilet!!!)

          • CruzSF says:

            paddypig, most commenters here seem to be traditionalists like you. The major exception is La Cieca herself, although it strikes me that she’s interested in committed direction, singing, and acting — i.e., committed whole performances — whether they occur in regie or traditional stagings. But whenever regie productions are brought up by La C, the protests here are strong and numerous.

            I’ve made no secret that I like some of the new treatments. Earlier today, I half-joked about a Tosca set on Mars, but I still prefer traditional stagings as my introduction to any opera. On occasion, I like to see what others (directors) have to say about or with a given work. Luckily, where I live (in the US, as opposed to, say, Germany), I can find traditional stagings of most things every month of the year. Just last night, I saw a fantastic production of Nixon in China that was 95% traditional. I don’t think traditional stagings are becoming extinct.

            My point in writing all this is: I’m sorry that you feel pushed away from here by the regie discussions. There are many people here that share your POV. I hope you don’t stay away so long next time.

      • paddypig says:

        i guess you think i am about 100 years old. am only 53, but have been going to the met since 1970 and was actively involved as a late teen with lake george opera, was in my first opera at 18 (the entirely forgetable THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by Alva Henderson) and appeared in several operas with them as well as with NYCO and the MET as a super, also ran my own theatre company in new york for several years and directed 8 productions in new york) i started young and have a strong background in theatre as well as a love for singing, not just opera, also love broadway, piaf, garland, makeba and jazz

        • phoenix says:

          Paddy, your accomplishments are to be commended for someone still in his prime.
          - I am much older than you and I never did anything very creative (others may have thought so, but I doubt it) -- spent all my time going to the opera, to the concerts, to the bars and traveling all over the world -- not much of a showing for it all in my old age, but plenty of memories.

        • manou says:

          Paddy -- you are a mere

          http://tinyurl.com/clgprva