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Don’t mask, don’t tell

But do chat this afternoon, cher public, during the season opener of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012-2013 Saturday matinee broadcasts: Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Álvarez and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Discussion commences promptly at 1:00 PM ET. (Photo: Ken Howard)

125 comments

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    One of the best, all around, HD singing. Not to be critical or nasty: Blythe, for her own sake and health, has to address her weight. It may not impede her getting gigs, but it may cut her life short. Hope someone loves her enough to tell her and help her.

    • DonCarloFanatic says:

      I thought about that when Deborah Voight interviewed her. “Before and After,” although not one word was said. Perhaps Blythe can’t see a way to preserve both her health and her fantastic voice. I am sure she knows well the probable consequences.

      • danpatter says:

        Blythe is a stupendous singer, and I’ve never heard a more imposing Ulrica. Caballe was very obese and was still singing credibly -- though far from her best -- in her mid-70s. Blythe excels in every genre she tries -- she’s a major voice AND talent. I don’t want her to jeopardize her voice, whatever she does. There are worse things than being fat. Two examples of singers who lost a lot of weight and wound up in vocal distress would be Callas and Voigt. Marilyn Horne lost significant weight at one point and says that she also lost a lot of volume at the same time.

        • oedipe says:

          There are worse things than being fat.

          Yea, for instance, being short and thin like Ciofi or Dessay. On this site, at least.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I have to say that I find small, thin sopranos, heaving away convulsively to squeeze out top notes, most uncomfortable to watch. Fortunately, not all petite sopranos look as though they are about to spew their guts up when aiming to produce a loudish top note.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            Dame Kiri said, on some chat show that ‘it’s exactly like spewing your guts up’.

          • MontyNostry says:

            And, in the case of a particular pushed-up mezzo I can think of, it sounds like to too.

        • RosinaLeckermaul says:

          Each to his own, but I’m not as impressed with Blythe as others on this site. It’s a big voice, but not a sensuous one. I heard her Amneris last year and thought it missed half the character — all loud and imperious, but no sense of a woman in love. I only heard her on the broadcast of BALLO but she didn’t sound as good as Zajick was in the role in the house or on the SiriusXM broadcasts. She’s certainly game to sing anything, but it’s not a voice I am crazy about. As I said, each to his own.
          I don’t totally buy the notion that reasonable weight loss would destroy an obese singer’s voice. No one is saying a singer has to look like a runway model, but there is a middle ground between unnecessarily skinny and the Rita Hunter -- Jane Eaglen look.

    • Arianna a Nasso says:

      Constantine, do you really think no one has been telling Blythe repeated for her 20 year career to lose weight? Do you think she doesn’t realize the consequences when she wakes up every day? For some people, the psychological issues that lead to such a degree of obesity just can’t be overcome.

      That said, one can hear some technical problems that probably are not being helped by the effect of her weight on her support, and she is not as agile a performer as her colleagues, which is an issue in an age where theatrical expectations in opera are higher than ever before.

      • DonCarloFanatic says:

        I don’t know where people get the idea that fat people do not realize they are fat.

        • rapt says:

          I think this point can never be reiterated enough. I remember the revelation to me when I first saw the library of one of my sisters who struggled with obesity (and whose life span may indeed have been compromised by her weight): it was full of books on dieting, obesity, etc. Not that this should have surprised me: how could anyone in such a body not be aware of the physical fatigue and stress of carrying such weight, not to mention the ill-concealed scorn of the surrounding society?

      • Bosah says:

        But singers like Blythe also see the scorn heaped on singers like Voigt and the struggles she’s had. Voigt herself has said how much more difficult it is to physically sing now, although she’s far healthier and her career has been strong.

        What is worse for Blythe’s career -- being obese and not as agile but with a voice roundly applauded or being thinner with more physical agility and a smaller or at least much different voice that is constantly negatively compared to her voice before? Voigt’s career thrived, but what would happen to Blythe? Can anyone say?

        I can imagine, on top of the root causes of obesity, the understanding that something could happen to her voice must be a huge detractor to losing weight.

        • DonCarloFanatic says:

          Especially because no one seems to know if a singer can lose enough weight to reduce threats to health, but retain enough power and--for want of a better word--throat to satisfy.

          Doctors are always saying that if people lose a mere 5-10% of their weight, they will substantially improve their health. Five percent of a 300-pound person, which I fear is what we are talking about, is only 15 pounds. Would losing 15 pounds be enough to ruin someone’s voice? Or is it different for each individual and therefore no one knows what the safe weight loss goal should be? That’s even more scary.

  • norma54 says:

    Have NEVER seen a production of EITHER Alden’s that I liked…..and today was no different. TRASH … a director’s conceipt. The singing was fine, though I would never pay more than $24 to hear Radvanovsky sing. She makes Elinor Ross sound like Callas! All the others were on a different level with Hvorostovsky getting the largest ovation and deservedly so. I’ve never heard Alvarez better but found his hands and arms in constant motion very distracting. Point of interest: the clip of Monastyrska showed vividly what REAL Verdian singing should be, in glaring contrast to Radvanovsky. I guess that everybody likes something different….

    • kraneled says:

      exactly, waiting for the real verdian soprano like monastyrska.
      i didnt like her lady in london (no great actress) but aida seems to be perfect…

      radvanovsky was a big big disapointment to me (i loved her in TROVATORE in Paris some years ago). its true she sound better in the house.
      not one word to understand… strange

  • DonCarloFanatic says:

    Saw the HD today and it was wonderful. Lovely singing, lovely costumes, and quite interesting sets that probably look even better in the theater.

    Marcelo Alvarez really had sparkle, something I’ve never seen from him before. Everybody sang and acted well and put over the story in every way. Stephanie Blythe was utterly perfect. Chilling, in fact.

    Mr. Alden, I do not understand why the initial reviews of this production were so negative. Your Ballo is splendid.

    • Nerva Nelli says:

      Maybe because the critics in the theater saw all the distracting nonsense (like Cristiano’s pals gang banging the drunken girl) that he filming and editing cut out on the HD?

      PLEASE bear in mind that you are seeing *a fraction* of what goes on onstage. The BALLO looked much better today than in the house; isn’t that almost always the case?

      I thought there were some very good things in Alden’s production but am far from sold on the Icarus idea. Also, the kind of phony anomie moments (more like a Chris Alden trick) of having “Di che fulgor” become all about the snarky breakdown of Count Horn. Armer, you can have him! A vocal non-entity. He and the weak Primo Giudice had no place on a Met stage.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Nerva, just as a tennis player can only beat the opponent in front of him/her, those of us who are too far from NYC to see the production in-house can only judge on what we saw. And even if there were loads of awful distractions in house, surely what was seen on HD was at least the bones of the production? I guess the debate about the inhouse and the HD experience is one which will go on and on.

        Having said which, I note that we have disagreed mildly on this, so I feel duty bound to tell you that you are a whore, a misogynist and a crybaby and you should keep your nose from where it’s not wanted ;-)

        • Nerva Nelli says:

          Armer, you and others are fully within your rights (nel vostro dritto) to comment on the HD experiencess as such. I was merely trying to answer the question: why is what you saw so much better than what in-house critics decried and described?

          You really did miss a lot of extraneous nonsense, especially in Act One. GRIMES, CONTES and COMTE ORY are other HDs which also edited out a lot of directorial drek; though to begin with this BALLO was certainly better directed than any of those shows.

          Second point taken! (“Ah, nous rions…”)

      • Porgy Amor says:

        One point in response to DCF’s original post: Some of the initial reviews for the BALLO were very good. I would say it had a mixed reception rather than a poor one. Even some reviewers who were overall disappointed had good things to say and praised its ambition and intelligence.

        While I was watching, I had the same thought that HN offers, that the cameras might have been helping to “cut it down” today, making it play better than it does in the house. This has happened before. I never saw the Doyle GRIMES live, but thought it came off very well on television, more immediate and atmospheric than the reviews suggested, Advent calendar and all.

        However, we have had a whole run of new Met productions that were beyond salvage. No amount of discretion and craft could make anything of the FAUST (which was dull and ill-conceived), the DON GIOVANNI (which was dull and non-conceived), the LE COMTE ORY (tone-deaf, unfunny, threadbare), the TOSCA (ill-sorted cast, bad choices that couldn’t be shot around, some of which have been dropped)…

        So, as HN allows, there is a lot here in the Alden BALLO that is valid and interesting, in my opinion more than in any of the above. Perhaps in addition to any help it’s getting from the video director, it’s also gaining something later in the run.

        • Nerva Nelli says:

          Io son NN, e non HN.

        • DonCarloFanatic says:

          The points you make, and those of NN and others, are valid ones, so I am making the big trek to NYC to see Ballo again, to decide for myself if I still like it and am moved by it.

          I’m surprised at myself. I hadn’t thought I liked Ballo that much. But I have been humming bits of it for days now, and I’ve never seen it all the way through in house. So why not this one? I loved the costumes and will enjoy looking at them whenever I want to instead of whenever the HD camera allows me a glimpse.

      • bluecabochon says:

        Well, I saw it in the house and now I’m mighty curious to see the HD and what you all saw that has you in raptures. I couldn’t wait for the evening to be over, despite the generally good singing, though I am not a fan of Ms. R.

        • Porgy Amor says:

          I never have been either. The “D’amor sull’ali rosee” in the TROV HD/DVD, for example, is flat-out unpleasant to me; I tense up. So I was happily surprised today. The two things that have always bothered me about her (the “hummingbird of metal” sound production and the frequent pitch issues) were under a control I didn’t think she had in her, and I’ve been hearing her intermittently for ten years. I’ve always been told, “You have to hear her live; it’s just the microphones.” And there’s something to that; I don’t think it’s a voice that microphones flatter. But there were microphones today and she was much smoother and more settled than I’ve heard her in the past.

        • jd says:

          I too saw it in the house. Liked the singing, but missed the comic tragic interweaving of other Ballos I’ve seen. Very little chemistry between Gustavo and Oscar. Hated the Oscar mannerisms with the chain smoking and the Iscarus wings — not at all a part of the Character. Production minimized the two villains. Hard to separate them from the chorus when they were all dressed alike. Also minimized relationship of Gustavo and Renato. Singing of Hvoro, Rad and Alvarez very good and Blythe was indeed magnificent. Many empty seats in a supposedly sold-out Family Circle and many left before Act 3!!

        • kennedet says:

          Bluecabochon,after reading such glowing reviews of Radvanovsky by many people I learn from and respect on this website, I must agree with you.Beauty of sound to me is the ultimate and she certainly has everything a professional artist strives for but i found the sound coarse and edgy throughout. Ironically, Alvarez has a beautiful sound (shades of Di Stefano) but not the projection or artistry of Radvanovsky. BTW, I sat in the last row of the house. Hvorostovsky has lost some of the bloom and Blythe is at the top of her game, for now.

          I wonder if it’s the natural progression of life to hear some of these voices fade or is it technique in the end? Another debate for the ages.

          • phoenix says:

            kennedet, good take on the proceedings.
            - ‘natural progression of life to hear some of these voices fade or is it technique in the end?’ Yes, at the ‘end’ it is only technique (if there is any skill remaining to implement it) -- still one needs at least some sound (maybe not a true ‘voice’) to utilize technique. Repeat offenders have such clout we are forced to sit passively, powerlessly listening to them year after year as their ‘voices fade’.

          • kennedet says:

            I agree, Phoenix. Peter Davis said that singers always lose it after a while so take advantage of it while you have it (I’m paraphrasing) but there must be some exceptions to the rule. I understand Price was in good vocal shape when she retired and Bidu Sayao also had a wonderful sound until the end of her life!! I imagine that is why singers often repeat the adage; “Technique is everything” but just try defining it and have agreement among the countless vocal pedagogues.

          • phoenix says:

            Every singer has different issues grappling with staying fit, the aging process and health -- there is no formula technique or regimen that fits all. The smart ones (like Elina Garanca) give up their roles while they are ahead.

          • kennedet says:

            Agreed. I remember an older singer stating that his technique was fine but he just didn’t have the stamina to do the role anymore. It must be very difficult to give up roles after an exciting career with all of the accolades and fulfillment they give but this art form demands standards and I guess we’ll debate what they truly are until doomsday. However, that is why parterre box is so important. Long may it reign.

  • armerjacquino says:

    Not to take anything away from Alvarez and Rad, who were both on stellar form, but here is a massively underrated soprano NAILING the duet…

    • Clita del Toro says:

      AmerJ I saw Katia in Ballo and loved her.I think it was with Pav.

      • jd says:

        Katia and Pav are my favorites in Ballo along with Judith Blegen! I am rewatching that Met production this morning — so much better production than the director’s missteps of yesterday matinee. Strongly disliked the overall Icarus concept and sets, did like the costumes.

      • kashania says:

        There is a video of the Met broadcast from 1980 with Ricciarelli, Pavarotti, Quilico and Blegen. It’s very good.

        I’m not sure about the “massively underrated” part. Ricciarelli often comes up in discussion and is usually fondly remembered (except for her Turandot). If she’d had a longer prime, she would have produced a bigger body of work and been remembered even more. Still, she’s hardly obscure.

        • armerjacquino says:

          What I mean by underrated, kash, is that there is seemingly no discussion of Ricciarelli that doesn’t turn immediately to TURANDOT or an assertion that after 1980/85/88 or whatever it was game over. I think that narrative tends to overshadow her actual achievements.

          • kashania says:

            I see what you mean, AJ. It’s funny. Some singers are remembered mostly (almost exclusively) for their best work (which is as it should be, IMO) while others are remembered for the notorious aspects of their careers. I guess that stems from a sense that it was a shame she didn’t make the most of her talents. Lately, mentions of Ricciarelli have been mostly about that Turandot but in previous conversations, the focus has rightly been on her great gifts.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I remember seeing Ricciarelli in Ballo on TV from Covent Garden in about 1975, before I really got into opera (that was a couple of years later). The funny thing is that I remember finding her voice disappointing, a bit lacking in body and colour, and that is an impression that remained virtually every time I saw her subsequently, which was quite frequently in the late 70s and early 80s -- Don Carlo, Aida (an embarrassingly poor performance), Otello, Ballo, Trovatore … The only time she really convinced me was as Bellini’s Giulietta, and I think bel canto was probably her real thing, since she could make the most of her morbidezza!

          • grimoaldo says:

            That Covent Garden 75 Ballo is where the duet aj posted comes from monty.
            I posted the link to the whole thing a couple of weeks ago, Domingo / Ricciarelli /Capucilli /Grist cond Abbado, it’s wonderful:

            Also not long since marshie and I were rhapsodising about Ricciarelli here:

            http://parterre.com/2012/11/01/once-in-half-a-lifetime/comment-page-1/

            and I posted her in a clip from her perfect Luisa Miller from around the same time,(of course this was immediately followed by “she shouldn’t have sung all those heavy parts and ruined her voice” etc type comments) here is the Act One finale with Domingo and Bruson and her:

          • MontyNostry says:

            I thought it was maybe that one. I remember Reri Grist making the most favourable impression on me at the time!

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            Ricciarelli has a chapter in Matheopoulos’s first Diva book and is therefore immortal.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Ricciarelli made a good point in that book (and La Matheopoulos showed up at Robert le Diable’s first night last week, hair more raven-hued than ever) when she said that Desdemona’s pleading for Cassio is like a housewife nagging her husband for a new fur coat when he has more important matters on his mind!

          • messa di voce says:

            “like a housewife nagging her husband for a new fur coat when he has more important matters on his mind!”

            Life imitates art. Isn’t that the story of the last 20 years for Ricciarelli?

          • MontyNostry says:

            Is she still together with Pippo? (How they got it together is described in Matheopoulos’s book too … ‘A romantic cold supper’ in Katia’s hotel …)

          • manou says:

            Pippo Bowed off.

          • kennedet says:

            Interesting discussion re: underrated singers. Contrary to that, I think Pavarotti was “over hyped” endlessly by the media and the public. His personality outweighed (no pun intended) the true significance of that sound. IMHO, I haven’t heard a tenor sound like that in the past 50 years. It’s incredibly thrilling to be in the Met when singers can unleash such emotions and an overwhelming response from the audience!!

    • Enzo Bordello says:

      Is she really that underrated? That saddens me. She was my first Mimi (1974) and a favorite Desdemona, Luisa Miller, BALLO and BOCCANEGRA Amelia, etc. Her early Verdi complete opera recordings for Philips are first-rate. Yes, she went on too long, took on a lot of stuff she had no business singing and now debases herself on Italian television presumably for money. But I treasure the prime years of her career.

      • J. G. Pastorkyna says:

        Underrated is a vague word. One can be underrated from underexposure: for instance Katherine Ciesinski, as intelligent and musical as Von Stade yet obscure and quasi-forgotten. Ricciarelli is underrated from overexposure: she recorded some of her big projects late (Ballo, Aida, Otello), and these allow us to perceive, with hindsight, some technical issues that were always present, notably the unsupported sound. If she had retired in 1980, she would be a legend of Cerquetti-like aura. Did the meat-and-potato repertoire shorten her career? Hard to say. But clearly she was most comfortable singing pieces like Legnano and Foscari.

      • Arianna a Nasso says:

        Ricciarelli’s career is rather old fashioned in how quickly it moved at the start. Born in 1946, she only sang leading roles and had hit the major houses (Met, Covent Garden, La Scala) before she was even 30. The natural talent was immense, but even her earliest RCA recordings, you can hear incipient technical issues. There was a decade of true greatness (the 1970s), luckily much of it preserved, but it was largely built on her natural gifts. If you don’t have your technique solidified by your mid-30s, you’re in for a quick fall.

      • Bill says:

        Ricciarelli sang intermittantly in Vienna from
        1973 until 1996 so 23 years -- her last role there
        was Maria Stuarta (following Gruberova, Mara
        Zampieri and preceding the endearing Coelho) essayed the Donizetti heroine from 1987 until 1996. When I saw Ricciarelli as Maria Stuarta circa 1986 (with Baltsa) Ricciarelli seemed to be able to tackle the florid passages with aplomb, sang with beautiful if somewhat uneven tone, was a very sympathetic and attractive character on the stage and was well received by the audience. She actually surprised me as I thought of her more first as a Liu, a Mimi, a good lyric Verdi
        soprano (Desdemona, Amelia in Boccanegra, Luisa Miller) and did not realize that she had such
        flexibility in her voice. She was hardly an operetic footnote, singing important roles in all the most important opera houses -- Turandot was probably not a role for her (but then Cebotari, a true lyric, was successful as Turandot) and I never heard Ricciarelli sing it but on recordings. She came on when Caballe and Freni were already well established in some of the same roles -- not an easy task and had also to contend with Pilou and Cotrubas in the more lyrical Italian fach (Liu, Mimi, Traviata for example, and as Micaela where Ricciarelli’s voice was less even than either Pilou or Cotrubus or the younger Freni.
        I kind of place Ricciarelli in the same category
        as Frittoli these days save that Fritoli sings more Mozart (rather unevenly). Ricciarelli also came on at a time when the heavier Verdian sopranos (few of whom would have ever considered venturing Turandot) were disappearing hence the Ballos, Andrea Cheniers, Fedoras and such. Maybe she was forced to push her voice beyond its true capability in these roles and that plus the lack of an enviable technique shortened her career somewhat.

        successful as T

  • kashania says:

    I didn’t see the HD broadcast. I don’t know what delights me more: How much everyone enjoyed the production or the fact that people have the chance to express their joy directly to David Alden on this site — a special treat.

    I only heard a couple of snippets on the radio — Blythe’s aria, Rad’s “Morro” and Hvorostovsky’s “Eri tu”. Blythe dug into that first note thrillingly, and while I’ve always been an enthusiastic fan, I had the opposite reaction of some here. I felt that she was driving her voice a bit too hard which caused her tone to harden. Still, it was an imposing and exciting rendition of the aria. Hvor and Rad both sounded great in their arias. Can’t wait to catch the whole thing on PBS.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Agreed Kashania, Blythe didn’t sound pleasant on the radio at home to me either, but there again it’s a voice that definitely has more colour in the house or through the rather better quality cinema speakers (as compared to my not even digital wireless!) so I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. It seemed rather fog-hornish and a bit too glaringly straight toned, for me.

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    One “Ballo” of notice is the 1943 complete recording, on 78 rpn, with Caniglia, Gigli, Bechi and Barbieri, Tullio Serafin conducting. Several years later, it was re-issued on LPs under the Seraphim label. The quality of audio, although mono, is phenomenal and I still play it on my turntable that has always been part of my h-f set up.

  • I also saw the ballo yesterday and I have to say that I liked the production a lot. I thought the sets, costume design and staging were for the most part quite effective. I appreciated the fact that the director took the time to use better angles when filming la Rad.

    For some reason, I did not come away as pleased with the singing:

    1. I love la Rad. I saw her do Amelia in Chicago and I loved every moment of it. Vocal production was for me, and to my ears, nearly flawless. I kept wishing I could understand her words. I saw her working to get the words out, but for the most part I didn’t think she was entirely successful during the Ecco. I saw a notable difference in the 3rd act. Her acting was quite wonderful. I thought she was quite effective in bringing out Amelia’s tragedy.

    2. Dima sounded quite nice and his acting was superb. Of the 3 principals, I thought he was the most successful in all 3 areas.

    3. I will give Marcelo props for the acting. he has been working on it and it shows. I thought he was most effective in act 1, where we had a huge grin and he was able to bring the lighthearted side of the king. I giggled openly when I saw him dance, it brought joy to my heart just seeing this big burly guy dance like no one was watching. Vocally, and here I have to disagree with most, I didn’t think he was as effective. I’ll give him the fact that he can produce very exiting sounds and he does have great high notes. My problem through the entire performance was what I perceived to be a lack of legato singing; this bothered me a bit.

    4. Kim was her usual impossibly cute self. Yes, I hated the wings and the damn cigarette, but at least the cigarette will be leaving pretty soon, I am sure.

    Overall, I thought this was a hit. I hope it is revived soon because I would like to see it in the house.

    • La Cieca says:

      I notice a lot of people complain about the wings on Oscar, and I don’t quite see the problem there. On a literal level, Oscar is wearing the wings as part of a masquerade costume. Even if you take his first appearance during the prelude as part of that “literal” level, it’s plausible given his impish character that he would jump the gun on sporting his costume, motivated perhaps by his vanity about being the king’s pet. He can do whatever he likes without fear of reprisal, including wearing wings around the office.

      The other level of course is the dream or symbolic, and Alden seems to see a lot of the action through that lens: the stylized movement of the courtiers, obvious followspots on Ulrica and Amelia and so forth. Oscar can be understood as a sort of personification of Gustavo’s frivolousness, his “fantasist” quality as Alden calls it. His fantasy is that he has no responsibilities, that he can indulge his whims like a spoiled child, and therefore he deludes himself that he has absolute freedom. And what is a more familiar symbol of freedom than flying like a bird?

      The bits for Oscar I thought were among the most successful in the production, actually. The character is given a lot of stage time and music without having much function in the plot. So I think it is sage of Alden to emphasize Oscar’s alternative functions here, i.e., the thematic and symbolic.

      • jd says:

        If Oscar is deluding himself that he has absolute freedom and can indulge his whims, why is he chain smoking?? That to me is one who is anxious and fearful rather than “flying like a bird.”

        • FragendeFrau82 says:

          I understood it to be Gustavo who was deluding himself. Oscar represents that.

          • jd says:

            nonetheless “frivoluousness”, “absolute freedom” and “flying like a bird” to me are incompatible with anxious chain smoking no matter whose delusion and fantasy it is. It seems to me that the director is layering on contradictory elements

  • WindyCityOperaman says:

    All those masks make this production look like 50-60s porno movies!