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The curse of drink

Two operas both alike in dignity, set in dimly lit Renaissance towns ruled by seething, conspiratorial courts. Parties blaze, alleyway shadows threaten, half the characters are spies or bravos for the other half, plus a few on spec. Love is in short supply, usually twisted. What these folks need is a competent social worker with a dagger-proof vest and a cast-iron stomach. What they get is melody to live upon and die upon, melody as rich and various as the forms of pasta.  

This summer, Will Crutchfield’s annual Bel Canto program at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York, focused on the relationships between two of Victor Hugo’s musical grandchildren, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (1833, rev. 1840) and Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851). For those of us aware of such lovely but less familiar Hugo-derived scores as Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra, Mercadante’s Il Giuramento, Cui’s Angelo, Ponchielli’s Marion Delorme, Marchetti’s Ruy Blas and Gomes’s Maria Tudor, this was a somewhat disappointing selection.

But Crutchfield had a point to make. He feels that Verdi was Donizetti’s successor as the most incisive composer of dramatic melody on the lyric stage, and that Verdi consciously followed that congenial route rather than the models of Rossini or Bellini. Rigoletto, the crown of Verdi’s early period, may derive many of its effects from close study of Lucrezia Borgia, both its lurid virtues and its imperfections.

Hugo’s plays, in his early, sensational era, focused on the conflict between garish, guignol characters, often royal, whose guilty secrets were often sincere (often parental) emotions. If the royals of history were insufficiently monstrous, Hugo unhesitatingly invented lovers, victims and incestuosities to spice things up. The newly-empowered bourgeois Parisian audiences gobbled these soufflés with relish. (Hugo was not alone: Dumas and Scribe, among others, kept pace.) Opera composers, though they had to be warier of censorship, pounced upon these plots as well.

It is only chivalrous to point out that the real Lucrezia Borgia never murdered anyone; none of her husbands died of poison and two of them lived to remarry. Those stories ‘bout the way she lost her bloomers? Rumors! In Hugo and in Donizetti, however, she is a fiend, but a fiend with a warm maternal instinct, a turn of the emotional screw that, set to music, calls for a distinctive palette of melodic color and a diva who can change the atmosphere on a dime.

Rigoletto is a flawless masterpiece, a mainstay of the repertory since the day it premiered in 1851—I felt no need to revisit it at Caramoor. Lucrezia, which shares so many of its tropes, is one of Donizetti’s most successful serious operas, but no one would call it flawless. It takes work, and it depends upon the prima donna to do that work.

In Rigoletto, we feel we know Sparafucile after three lines—indeed the menace of the accompaniment singles him out, creates him for us, whereas the many spies in Lucrezia and Gennaro’s indistinguishable buddies (aside from the betrousered mezzo Maffio) are never individual or human. Too, though the warmth Lucrezia and Gennaro feel for each other is sincere, he never makes the connection between the unknown mother he invokes and the mysterious older woman he never quite trusts. Is his attraction to her sexual? No; that would be creepy. Then what is it? Gennaro’s behavior is not based on his personality (he has none—Romani and Donizetti have not supplied one); he is based on the requirements of melodrama, and the melodrama belongs to Lucrezia.

Lucrezia has had lousy luck with New York’s two principal opera companies—it does not succeed as a tenor vehicle, even for Caruso at the Met in 1904 (withdrawn after one performance); too, you need a healthier soprano to put over the long-breathed Bellinian melodies than Sills was in 1976, when she sang it as almost her last role for the City Opera. The piece packs houses elsewhere. It was the occasion of Montserrat Caballé’s abrupt ascent to world fame at Carnegie Hall in 1965; it has been a topper for Gencer, Sutherland, Devia and Gruberova, but Fleming found it an awkward fit at La Scala and had to pull out. The soprano must carry this show; it will not carry the soprano.

Angela Meade  has sung Norma, Semiramide and Duchess Hélène at Caramoor with credit, each of them a tougher sing than Lucrezia, which should have been a knockover for her. The extended A-flat in the Prologue finale, the one Lucrezia must hold during a statement of the theme by everyone else on stage, was a thing of great beauty, admirably sustained, but you had to strain a bit to hear it. Her “Com’é bello” was very pretty, but she omitted the second verse.

Meade can sing many deep and beautiful phrases in the middle of her voice and possesses an enviable fil de voix above the staff. If she could figure out a way to join these two things with the evenness that bel canto prized, she’d be a major artist. But on her way from dark chest voice to the floating phrases in alt, many notes are hollow, a surface sound as if eroding waves had gutted the tone, and these unattractive sounds are often off pitch as well. Her Lucrezia was assured but imperfect.

The entire cast looked good and sounded less than met the eye. Michele Angelini, the Gennaro, boasts a pleasant light tenor but on July 18, he was dogged by phlegms all evening, and often broke the line into individual notes and syllables where a flowing sound is called for. Tamara Mumford, as Maffio Orsini, sang some winning phrases, especially in her lowest range—was that a plummy E that bowled us over in the brindisi? But there was nothing the least bit masculine about her portrayal—she might have been The Other Woman.

Christophoros Stamboglis looks a Mafia thug of grim and cold aspect, which is perfect for Duke Alfonso, but his sizable voice seemed more baritone than bass, easy and ringing on top but missing a note or two at the bottom. All these singers had a way of adding elegant but very tiny ornaments to the line, as if tossing them off to themselves (or aside to Maestro Crutchfield) as afterthoughts rather than hurling their talent out before the world with any assurance. Opera is theater: Show it off, don’t keep it to yourself. Among the many (many) spies, confidantes and comrades, baritone Zachary Altman and tenor Cameron Schutza gave pleasure and remained in character.

Two or three variant versions of Lucrezia Borgia exist, derived from the exigencies of different singers on different occasions. At the 1833 premiere at La Scala, the story goes, Henriette Méric-Lalande, singing the first verse of her exquisite cavatina, “Com’é bello, quale incanto” while masked, feared the audience would not realize she was the evening’s prima donna. She demanded a cabaletta to follow, and Donizetti responded (unwillingly) with “Ci vogli il prima a cogliere,” one of his weakest. She wanted another cabaletta to conclude the opera, “Era desso il figlio mio,” (He was my son!, sung over the tenor’s corpse), which is not a “pretty” thing at all—the situation hardly merits pretty—but the rage of a woman without hope, not unlike Elisabetta’s final aria in Roberto Devereux or the vindictive conclusion of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, which had opened at the same opera house earlier the same year (with the same librettist, Romani).

For Paris in 1840, Donizetti concocted a revised version in which both cabalettas were dropped, the opera now ending with more classical restraint: a tragic duet for the mother and her dying son. (There also exists a dying cabaletta for Gennaro, purchased from the composer by the Russian tenor, Ivanov, which sometimes turns up in modern performances.)

For the two Caramoor performances this month, Meade omitted the “Ci vogli” on July 12, then restored it (sadly, omitting “Mentre geme il cor sommesso,” the second verse of the divine “Com’é bello”) on July 18, extending the piece into a lengthy cadenza with lengthy staccato repetitions. No one present doubted who the prima donna was. She sang “Era desso il mio figlio” on July 12 and omitted it on the eighteenth—but a rumor spread through the audience that she would offer it as an encore if we applauded loudly enough. Naturally we did, and she did, and she sold it. Ah, tradition!

Photo: Gabe Palacio


  • 1
    almavivante says:

    A very insightful review, but may I take exception to one remark? Is Beatrice di Tenda’s finale really “vindictive”? Maybe this is simply a difference of interpretation, but I’ve never seen Beatrice as being vindictive, although given the way her husband has treated her (and condemned her to death!), she should be! She sings (to paraphrase in English), Oh the death to which I go is not pain but triumph… I take with me only your love. She’s resigned, transcendent--hardly hurling out “coppia indiqua!” as Anna Bolena does, justifiably indignant.

    Your mention of little cuts throughout was very to the point. Let me mention one other: I was a little startled by the omission right before the end of the poison duet that concludes act I of Lucrezia’s lines “Tu sei salvo! O supremo contento! Quindi involati--affrettati--va!” These lines ratchet up the excitement even more, and help propel the duet into its full-throttle ending: “Deh, fuggi, va!” Just a tiny complaint; otherwise I heartily enjoyed the July 12 perf.

    • 1.1
      armerjacquino says:

      Well, Bolena may be indignant, but she’s not vindictive either. Once she’s called them ‘iniqua’ the rest of the aria is about forgiveness and about praying for them:

      “l’estrema vendetta
      Non impreco in quest’ora tremenda;
      Nel sepolcro che aperto m’aspetta,
      Col perdono sul labbro si scenda,
      Ei m’acquisti clemenza e favore
      Al cospetto d’un Dio di pietà.”

      • 1.1.1
        rapt says:

        For me, though--am I the only one?--the music seems to work ironically against the words. I think it would be hard not to sound fierce (despite the forgiving words) in those ascending lines. That “estrema” too suggests that she’s vividly imagining the vendetta that she claims not to invoke (she might have said instead that she didn’t hope for even the tiniest, mildest vendetta…).

          manou says:

          Also -- if she is about to die she obviously feels that taking Pascal’s wager would be advantageous and that her declared forgiveness might gain her “clemency and favour in the presence of a merciful God”.

          armerjacquino says:

          rapt- attenzione agli amici falsi! ‘estrema’ doesn’t mean ‘extreme’ here, it means ‘final’ or ‘last’.

          I agree with you about the irony, though. What I get from it is someone who wants to be forgiving, because immortal soul, but is finding it hard. It’s nonetheless difficult to call it a ‘vindictive’ moment, though.

          • rapt says:

            Thanks for that heads-up, aj. Having been raised Catholic, I should have known this from extreme unction! I also see your point--the emotions may still seek vengeance, but her words do suggest that she is at least trying to forgive. Manou’s point reminds me of one of the things I liked about Catholicism when I subscribed to it--that you could get very far with lip service alone!(Apologies to truer believers than myself…)

      • 1.1.2
        almavivante says:

        Point taken, AJ.

  • 2
    mercadante says:

    Actually Meric-Lalande only insisted upon, and got, the finale caballetta “Era desso”. It was for Erminia Frezzolini that the caballetta after “Come e bello” was added. This was derived from an earlier work. Since “Come e bello” is in two strophe, the following caballetta is in a single verse with coda. If two verses of it are sung, the tempo di mezzo exists from it’s earlier incarnation, then the preceding cavatina is reduced to a single verse as Donizetti did not like the idea of having two movements in two verses follow each other, even though Bellini set the precedent in Norma with “Casta diva” and “Ah bello a me ritorno”.

    My preferred version is neither caballetta with the dying Gennaro’s arioso closing the opera. This is dramatically and musically satisfying and can be heard in the live performances of Gencer from Naples and Caballe from Carnegie Hall. The “Era desso ” finale is in the studio recordings of Sutherland and Caballe. Caballe’s studio recording also includes the two verse aria di sortita/ single verse caballetta combo, which I don’t like as it holds up the action too long and the caballetta is musically undistinguished.

    The Ivanov aria is an insertion for the first scene of Act III and was a romanza to replace the Gennaro/ Orsini duet. Bonynge, in the Sutherland studio recording, includes it before the duet and does both numbers. This works musically and dramatically, and Giacomo Aragall sings it well.

  • 3
    Hans Lick says:

    Thanks, Mercadante!
    I knew someone on Parterre would have all the details of diva, placement and recording down pat, and you’re so well named for the job!

  • 4
    javier says:

    Meade is becoming a real diva.

  • 5
    PoveroStudente says:

    Slightly off topic, and my apologies as such, but I’m rather curious if anyone has heard word of a record deal for Angela Meade (or, Jamie Barton for that matter?)? Being a grad student stranded in the wasteland, I’m anxious to hear both artists in recordings not sourced from Youtube!

  • 6
    phoenix says:

    Thanks Yohalem! Her approach to the passagio is one of the rockiest in the business -- now I know why I often don’t care for Angela Meade’s singing.

  • 7
    aulus agerius says:

    Kraus sings the Gennaro aria in the ’81 ROH performance with Dame Joan. Jose Bros sang it in Orvieto. Both of these are on video. It’s a bear!

  • 8
    aulus agerius says:

    Only 6 comments. Has La Meade’s star fallen so far (to non-interest) so soon? I admit I didn’t even consider making the trek this year.

  • 9
    davidhenry says:

    I’m no bel canto expert, but I enjoyed the Act I cabaletta immensely, and so too did the audience. I did notice that “Come bello” did seem to end prematurely, but I assumed (correctly) it was because of the addition of the cabaletta. I didn’t feel robbed.. especially after she sang “Era desso”. I also enjoyed Ms. Mumford’s work, especially that low note. Crutchfield slowed the orchestra to a crawl for it, and my jaw dropped. I elbowed my mom to make sure she was appreciating the moment. Yes, I took my mother to see Lucretia Borgia. I really enjoyed the awkwardness.

  • 10
    Constantine A. Papas says:

    I’m sorry to mention this: AM’s photo shows weight gain. She’s still in her 30s and can take care of it. This may or may not affect her career but definitely may affect her health.

    • 10.1
      la vociaccia says:

      She’s lost a lot of weight in the past five years. Compare that photo to the one from her 2010 Norma at Caramoor. You don’t need to concern-troll her health over one unflattering photo.

    • 10.2
      la vociaccia says:

      (A useful alternative to being sorry to mention something is not mentioning it at all in the first place)

      • 10.2.1
        guy pacifica says:

        I’ve seen Meade live a couple times recently and she’s noticeably thinner that she was four or five years ago. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s no larger than a typical American woman you’d see at a state fair. She’s able to move gracefully on the stage, and while she would undoubtedly be healthier if she weighed 100 pounds, her weight doesn’t seem to impair her singing or performing.

  • 11
    kennedet says:

    I’m more concerned about the vibrato which seems to have fluctuated to a slower pace. It seemed much faster in the beginning of her career. When it interferes with pitch…then you have a major problem. I wish her the best but I’m less sympathetic to singers who win $50,000(just a few years ago) and big careers if they have voice defects. Either fix the problem or give someone else a chance. The standards are very high in this business but there are many singers who are studying, struggling and preparing themselves for the opportunity to have their turn and hopefully will be given a chance.

    • 11.1
      la vociaccia says:

      I hear what you are saying, but it really isn’t her fault that those who sing better than her aren’t making the splash they could be making if she weren’t singing. I sympathize with excellent singers who struggle but you shouldn’t direct your frustration at Meade and tell her to fix her voice or ‘give someone else a chance.’ Telling the people who cast her to give someone else a chance is less unfair, but the thing is, she actually has a real live fan base now. New York likes Angela Meade. It’s going to take more than vocal problems to stop that.

      • 11.1.1
        kennedet says:

        I also hear what you are saying vociaccia but I draw the line at vocal defects. If her vibrato is effecting pitch…something should be done to rectify it. $50,000 dollars is a lot of money and this business is too competetive to spend it on a singer if she can’t maintain the standards from the great singers that are currently performing and also the ones from the past.

      • 11.1.2
        kennedet says:

        Maybe in a “fair world” vocal problems should stop a career, vociaccia. Otherwise, what’s the reason for singers taking the long journey in securing one? I don’t think a fan base should be a criteria. This is a very serious art form and I believe in keeping to the standards we have built for artists over the centuries, depending on your point of view, but have some solid pertinent vocal beliefs to solidify your views. Otherwise, we are no better than American Idol.

          la vociaccia says:

          Kennedet, you’re preaching to the choir. My only point is, your frustration is misdirected. It isn’t Meade’s fault that people love her singing. And you should understand that she did work very hard to get to where she is now, regardless of how much undue attention you feel she has received, or how big you think her problems are.

          It’s the same way I feel about the ire directed at Voigt for having the “gall” to accept extremely lucrative contracts in roles that people think she didn’t sing well. It’s not her problem that the Met offered her Marie and Brunnhilde; it’s the Met’s fault for not hearing the problems in the first place.

          • kennedet says:

            Fair enough. In no way did I mean to fault Meade for her current standing. I am sure she has worked tremendously hard to attain her status. Hopefully she will be apprised of vocal difficulties which lead to “faulty” vocal production which can threaten her illustrious career.

            Your statements regarding Voigt reminded of the movie we watched about Elaine Stritch, in which her management allowed her to continue to perform in her late 80s despite her diabetes, hospital emergencies, lost of memory and rebound from alcoholism. It was blatantly obvious that they were doing it for the money. The poor woman stood there during her performances and waited for her accompanist to give her words. I know she wanted to perform but it became a mockery instead of what a decent performance could be.

            I am curious as to whether you feel Voigt was aware of her vocal difficulties and should be held responsible for the problems that eventually lead to her not being hired for future engagements. It’s hard to imagine she would just “take the money and run”.

            • La Cieca says:

              Anyone who had the slightest association with Stritch or for that matter anyone who observed her demeanor over the decades would laugh at the idea of “her management allow[ing]” her to do anything. Strich pretty much did as she pleased, taking on the projects she thought she might find interesting. (I sometimes think she also took on projects that frightened her, because she wanted to conquer that fright.)

              Yes, she had trouble with words in the last couple of years she was performing, but her audiences, select groups in small rooms, accepted her memory issues as a more than fair tradeoff for the experience of her singing and storytelling. She wasn’t making a ton of money in her cabaret performances (though I assume she collected some very handsome checks from 30 Rock and she wasn’t hurting for money anyway. The only regrets she seemed to have were (some of the time) her move to Michigan in her last years, because she found life there without performing rather dull.

              If during her last cabaret performances she was having a good time and the audience was having a good time, what the hell do you have to grouse about, her failure to live up to some artificial standard you dreamed up about what a “decent” performance should consist of?

            • The_Kid says:

              I do not agree with La Cieca on a lot of things, but here I am 100% in agreement: I belong to tons of B’way groups on FB, and almost everyone says the same thing -- watching Elaine in action was like watching Merman or Martin live. A total experience with a capital ‘E’. I just got a copy of her ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, and I gotta say: I like her better than Uta Hagen. There are some bootleg versions of her late-career cabaret recordings on YT, and you can just feel the audience’s awe and love. It is very hard to walk away from that kind of symbiosis.

            • steveac10 says:

              So if a performer has “flaws” they have no business performing? ALL singers have flaws of one sort of the other. Should Angela quit singing and get a secretarial job because you deem her vibrato not to your standards? Should Leonie have quit singing because of her pitch issues? My position is that if you expect perfection you’re not going to like anything and on the rare chance you do get it you’ll be bored as hell.

    • 11.2
      phoenix says:

      In agreement with kennedet but facing the reality of la voci. Meade is not always vocally reliable but she still has her top (money) notes (no matter how badly the rest of voice can sound on occasion); that is apparently good enough to keep her where she is. She has a good agent who gets her the best bookings available in her rep. The first time I heard her (as Elvira in Ernani) I couldn’t believe how bad she was, but everyone else raved & raved on. She is best when she can achieve a ‘stunning’ effect on a specific, individual phrase -- unfortunately often followed by unidiomatic italian delivered with a woofy tone. As far as vocal interpretation goes, for all dramatic situations in all operas she goes into her same, unvarying desperation routine (repeated in every role she assumes) sounding about as convincing as a kvetching Long Island hausfrau.
      -- On the plus side, in vêpres siciliennes (as a total performance) Meade was much better than any of the others I have heard try that role since. She offered no memorable dramatic insight at all, but at least she sang it as well as I expect it to be done. Is Hélène that difficult? Gulin & Miricioiu sang it in late career at the Met, it couldn’t be that demanding of a role.

      • 11.2.1
        Krunoslav says:

        ” Gulin & Miricioiu sang it in late career at the Met, it couldn’t be that demanding of a role.”

        Very flawed logic, phoenix.

        Gulin was terrible shape vocaly and could not sing anything in the uper register; she crashed and burned- was there. Miriciouiu seemed to have been given that cover assignment by Fiend and Billingsgate to proves they had been wrong in not having her before ( except for the Where’s Mimi” BOHEME 15 years earlier.

        Unlike Gulin-- an elemental *voce*,no kind of textual interpreter-- less so even than Meade, who cando anger convnciingly ( e basta). Miricioiu had something to offer, but she was really past doing justice to the rigors oft he role.

        Even more than Violetta it demands everything of a soprano-- to be a good coloratura, a strong dramatic, you name it.

        Parallel example to what you state: Teresa Kubiak sang Leonore and Senta near the end of her career; that does not mean that they are easy parts!

          MontyNostry says:

          I think both Scotto and Radvanovsky have identified Hélène/Elena as their most all-round demanding Verdi heroine in purely vocal terms.

          Regina delle fate says:

          It’s really a shame that Miricioiu’s prime was not spent in the world’s great opera houses. She had her chances at Covent Garden but apparently blew her relationship with the house and then acquired a cult following in Amsterdam. By the time she returned to the RO, as Norma in concert, it was also too late. I remember her Scottish Opera Violetta, Manon Lescaut and Tosca when she was young and they certainly put Gheorghiu into context.

          • The_Kid says:

            She was also a glorious Mary Tudor in Pacini’s Maria Regina d’Inghilterra. Like all ‘assoluta’-aspirants, a short career, but a glorious one. She is also a very nice person, by all accounts.

            • Cocky Kurwenal says:

              I don’t know how you can call it a short career- her professional debut was c.1975 and I saw her as Norma in 2000- she has done other stuff since, including Tosca at the ROH when somebody (I think Voigt) cancelled a few years back, so that’s c.30 years of career.

          • PushedUpMezzo says:

            Nothing wrong with a cult following in Amsterdam (those were the days!). She was always a bit hit and miss vocally, but never, never bland. And always audible. The Naxos Tosca shows her at her considerable best.

            • Krunoslav says:

              I adore Miriciuiou, whom I was lucky to see in non-Met performances including a wonderful TRAVIATA w/Bruson in Ravenna, a Washington ANNA BOLENA with Judith Forst and a Washngton PIRATA concert under Stephen Crout.

              I can’t say I agree that the Naxos TOSCA shows her at her best. I would always turn to Callas #1, or Price #1, Tebaldi/Tucker/Warren and many others first. I think my favorite thing of hers on disc is the Wigmore Hal recital.

            • Cocky Kurwenal says:

              It seems quite wrong of us to be talking about Miricioiu’s career in the past tense -- she has at least 1 future engagement:


            • manou says:

              Thanks for this Cocky -- just booked for a couple of these. Now to survive until 2015…

            • Cocky Kurwenal says:

              And I’ve just asked to join the chorus -- I’ll waive from the stage (if they take me)!

            • manou says:

              If they don’t take you, they will waive goodbye to an excellent prospect.

              Looking forward to you ruling the waves.

            • manou says:

              NO NO NO! Wave goodbye and waive a prospect.

              Hoist with my own petard…

            • manou says:

              (The heat has fried my brain).

            • Cocky Kurwenal says:

              Haha, that was probably my fault!

          • Archaeopteryx says:

            Miricioiu was one of the favorite artists of Opera Rara’s Patric Schmid and recorded a lot there in from the nineties to 2003 where she finished her recording career with Mercadante’s Emma d’Antiochia, which was also the last role Giuditta Pasta sang (I always loved Patric Schmid’s historic casting ideas -- the second female lead in that opera was designed for Eugenia Tadolini, then an aspiring singer and Pasta heiress, and he cast Majella Cullagh in it, who then became a sort of Mircioiu replacement in the companies roster until Schmid’s untimely death and the overall change of artists. It’s a pity that Majella didn’t record this opera then for some reasons. Also Bruce Fords last recording was the last opera written for Andrea Nozzari…and so on…).
            Nelly has obviously a quite number of fans in Amsterdam and in London, where she appears mostly with the Chelsea Opera Group -- most recently her Lina in Stiffelio which was, according to some friends of mine who went there, was a big success.

            • MontyNostry says:

              I saw Miricioiu a number of times over the years -- first of all in a Wigmore Hall recital in the mid-80s and as Marguerite and Musetta and in concert performances of Adriana Lecouvreur (2009, I think) and Belisario (2011, I think), and I always found her impressive. No lack of commitment there! The Adriana was particularly fine, with some very subtle effects as well as diva moments.

          phoenix says:

          To kruno: Logic has no place in this business or on this site -- you should know that as well as I.
          To Monty: Strange you claim they said that. I wouldn’t believe any quotes ascribed to either of them.
          -- I can only tell you from my experience that Radvan’s 2006 Wiener staatsoper Vespri was the best sung performance I ever heard from her -- no sign of any strain at all. Scotto’s Elenas in Firenze and at the Met were also the best I ever heard from her. If either of them were under any kind of duress, it didn’t sound like to me -- the easiest, most freely sung I heard from them.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Just because a prima donna says a role is demanding, it doesn’t mean she can’t sing it well -- that’s why she’s a prima donna!

          • Krunoslav says:

            Well, I don’t know if you’re trying to be coy or what, but the fact that Sondra at her peak sounds great in VESPRI doe not make Elena an easy sing. Callas sounds great in the 1949 NABUCCO: is Abigaille easy? Again- basic logic.

            Scotto was, if more expressive than Gulin, vocally pretty wretched in the part at the Met in 1982--one of her most painful broadcasts; she was magnificent in 1974 however.

            • La Cieca says:

              I’m still waiting to hear Sondra sounding great in Vespri — her Met performances were marred, in my opinion, by her habit of putting the brakes on the tempo any time the music turned florid. The bolero sounded like a dirge, steam-whistle high E at the finish notwithstanding. (As with a lot of singers, I keep wishing she would put as much effort into the actual written notes as she lavishes on the interpolations.)

            • Porgy Amor says:

              Vespri was the opera that got me off on a bad foot with her. Years ago I had dinner with a friend who lived in New York at the time and told me about this soprano, Radvanovsky, whose Trovatore and something else (Don Giovanni?) had been incredible in the house. “Better than Leontyne Price at her best,” he claimed. I was skeptical of that last part, but not prejudiced by it; I just hoped she was great in her own right. So I listened with interest to a subsequent Vespri broadcast, and I was put off immediately by all the things that people who don’t “get” Radvanovsky find troubling. When we talked about her the next time, he blamed the microphones and said she just was not a singer who can be evaluated fairly over the radio or on records. Unfortunately, this is the only way I have heard her. Not that there seems to be unanimity of opinion on how good she is live, or ever is on any singer.

              Two HDs have given me the best and worst of her to date. The Trovatore Leonora was so juddery and rough that I was tense every time she was singing, but
              the Ballo Amelia in the Alden production had a smoother line than I was expecting, and the pitch too was under better control. It was close as I’ve come yet to hearing what the fuss is about.

      • 11.2.2
        kennedet says:

        Bear in mind that Meade has all of the luxuries of a diva. She has a major career. Based on your comments from your first paragraph, phoenix I don’t think I’d like to hear her. I haven’t heard her live, only on the radio and you tube and I don’t know who could replace her. I saw the DVD Met presentation and the Casta Diva was wonderful but I don’t hear those sounds lately.

          Regina delle fate says:

          Sadly, she isn’t singing Matilde in the Torino Tell in Edimburgo. We’ve got Mosuc instead. I can take or leave her (sorry Coloraturafan).

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            I’m looking forward to hearing Mosuc, it will be the first time for me, so I’m glad it’s her. Seems to have a bit more presence and personality than Meade in any case.

            • coloraturafan says:

              Sorry, but I am sure Mosuc isn’t singing in this Torino tour. My thought was that Meade was taking those assignments over.

            • Evenhanded says:


              Cocky: First off, thank you for clarifying in regard to the length of Miricioiu’s career. She sang an incredible breadth of roles over something close to 35 years. Yes, the quality was variable -- sometimes exciting and sometimes inadequate -- but she was/is the real deal and (to judge from her singing) has a big heart.

              In regard to Mathilde, I’m afraid that you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. NEITHER of the options sounds particularly exciting. Personally, I would rather hear Mosuc. I was a huge fan at one time, but judging from her most recent Donizetti CD (pretty much dreadful, pace Coloraturafan), I’m afraid she is a bit past her best at this point. The voice has loosened considerably (yes, I would call it a small wobble) and her pitching has become too variable, IMHO.

              Still, one would rather hear a “B” quality soprano who has worked hard to understand the bel canto tradition, than Meade any day. Meade has her supporters -- baffling -- and I believe her heart is probably in the right place. Still, when you listen to her phrasing, use of words, and patched-together vocal technique, she just doesn’t seem to be much of a thinker. That is, she offers little intelligence behind the singing. Add to this all the dodgy vocal defects mentioned in a balanced way by Kennedet, and you have a truly mystifying career.

              Aside from some difficult coloratura passages in Act III (“Pour notre amour plus d’espérance”), Mathilde could easily be cast with a full lyric soprano. One would certainly do much better with the likes of Krassimira Stoyanova than Meade or Mosuc, but oh well. I suspect you will greatly enjoy the performance regardless. Cheers!

            • Cocky Kurwenal says:

              Well, I’m as happy to hear Meade as I was about Mosuc, not having heard either live and being curious about both.

            • la vociaccia says:

              Evenhanded, her career isn’t all that mystifying if you hear how she sounded in 2007 in “The audition.” Her voice was, at that time, extremely well produced. You actually said this exact thing when you heard a recording her of ‘O Zittre Nicht’ from a few years before that. It’s not baffling that the people who heard her then, and who now hear glimpses of what made her special then, hold on to hope that the issues aren’t permanent, and that her considerable gifts will be met with a more overall secure technique(I personally find it baffling that you see NOTHING there, but then again, I feel the same way about Radvanovsky and have no idea what people find appealing in her singing).

          • coloraturafan says:

            No Mosuc isn’t singing in Guillaume Tell. I am pretty sure Meade is filling in on those open spots… I know there were performances scheduled in Chicago and Toronto also.

            • Hippolyte says:

              Meade has always been scheduled for the Torino Tell performances in Chicago and New York, but for what it’s worth, Mosuc still appears listed for the Toronto show (which also features a different tenor too):


            • coloraturafan says:

              I really have nothing to add to the Meade versus Mosuc debate, except that I love Mosuc and she is a personal favorite of mine. Meade, who I have only heard live once in Don Giovanni, seems a good singer and one that I would enjoy hearing again. However, for my ears, Meade and Mosuc are very different voices. There might be some crossover in their perspective repertory, but other than that there is little comparison.

              As to the comment that Mosuc’s voice is past its best, here is a great clip of Mosuc from a recent I Puritani performance (filling in last minute for another soprano, in Bilbao)

      • 11.2.3
        kennedet says:

        Cieca, evidently I have insulted someone very dear to you. My only regret is not giving her the admiration she deserved for her many decades of work. My grousing comes when it’s no longer a good performance and it’s time to stop and give other capable performers a chance who can do a better job. And yes, I blame management because I believe they have the first and last “say” in whether a performer lives or dies on stage.I disagree with you on many levels and I won’t start an endless argument. I’m not good at trading insults. However, I also won’t take back anything I stated. My standards about a decent performance was taught to me many years ago when I wanted to learn how to be a professional performer and it wasn’t a dream.

          La Cieca says:

          You “believe?” How do you think a career is managed, by reading Bible verses?

          A decent performance is a reasonable expectation from an ordinary artist. Elaine Stritch was unique and as such created her own rules. That’s how genius works, though maybe that’s a difficult concept to grasp by someone who thinks this one or that one “deserves” a career and therefore, presto, will have one.

      • 11.2.4
        Camille says:

        “It couldn’t be that demanding of a role.”

        Um, watch the bouncing ball, listen and learn:

        One might want to read the information provided with this clip, in regard to that utterly astonishing final cadenza.

        Not hard, no, not at all….

  • 12
    la vociaccia says:

    And I’d like to add that in spite of her flaws, Meade is still a seriously major talent, and I still try and see her as often as I can

  • 13
    thenoctambulist says:

    I beg to differ. Pretty much the in the entire nineteenth century, Rigoletto was not commonly performed, particularly in America. Whereas Borgia was the repertory piece, the biggest Donizetti hit to play in all opera houses. La Scala alone had multiple productions for it something it didn’t do for Rigoletto. Fortunes did change in the twentieth unfortunately.

    From the first melodic notes of intrigue and mystery, Borgia is a masterpiece to the end. You are right though that it needs a great singer to bring it alive. It was after all one of the biggest successes of bel canto era, a musical epoch which has the most difficult and the most beautiful music. Rigoletto on the other hand can be sung by any mediocre troupe.

    Crutchfield is right to juxtapose these two. It is necessary to show how much Verdi borrowed from Donizetti and even today how opera companies give Donizetti’s dramatic vehicles short shrift in preference to his comedies. Hopefully, these dramatic masterpieces-- Bolena, Borgia, Devereux, Stuarda and Gemma will reclaim their past glory.

  • 14
    thenoctambulist says:

    I was replying to these comments in the article but somehow they could not be quoted:

    Rigoletto is a flawless masterpiece, a mainstay of the repertory since the day it premiered in 1851—I felt no need to revisit it at Caramoor. Lucrezia, which shares so many of its tropes, is one of Donizetti’s most successful serious operas, but no one would call it flawless. It takes work, and it depends upon the prima donna to do that work.

  • 15
    aulus agerius says:

    I think Meade often does cadenzas or codas really well. She sometimes manages to really communicate emotional content to those fancy runs and leaps and trills. “Ernani involami” stands out in memory as beautifully done.

    • 15.1
      The_Kid says:

      You took the words right of my mouth: that’s exactly how I feel. She does the cabalettas wonderfully, (mostly) has the high notes in place, and let’s face it: a lot of the audience remembers only those. I mean, a Lakme can sing the whole role memorably, but if she flubs the Bell song, she’s pretty much done for.

  • 16
    grimoaldo says:

    After Meade’s stunning singing of a scene for another Lucrezia, from the early Verdi masterpiece I Due Foscari

    I thought what a shame that we live in a world where it is apparently impossible that she should immediately be offered a production of that opera, in the next few months. How great Foscari would be with her, Fabiano and Stephen Powell. And it wouldn’t have to have expensive new sets and costumes, they could use stock ones, opera companies used to do that all the time.
    Not gonna happen of course, such a shame that the opera world has devised a system whereby “hot” young singers in their prime only very seldom appear in leading roles at the top houses.

    • 16.1
      Archaeopteryx says:

      She sang two concert performances of this opera in 2012 in Berlin, I was there. Her partners were Leo Nucci and Ramon Vargas, and she was really great in that part. Her two arias brought the house down. I hope we get her back soon in similar repertoire.

    • 16.2
      Regina delle fate says:

      Fabiano was Fab in the Glynditz Traviata. Roll on Poliuto next year.

    • 16.3
      armerjacquino says:

      It’s impossible to set any large scale theatrical event up in ‘the next few months’. That’s not just poor practice in opera, it’s a practical reality. The director and designer have to agree what the show is going to look like, then the designer has to come up with the designs, then the sets have to be built. That’s not a short process. Costumes, too, require making and fitting. Then, casting any play takes a couple of months, and theatre isn’t an international career in the way opera is.

      Ah, but I see you have a solution to this:

      And it wouldn’t have to have expensive new sets and costumes, they could use stock ones, opera companies used to do that all the time.

      Well, yes. You could throw together something on old sets with whoever happened to be free, and whatever frocks you can pick off the warehouse shelf, but I don’t think that would serve Meade or the opera very well. Opera is a collaborative art form, not a sodding dressing-up box.

      • 16.3.1
        grimoaldo says:

        Handel finished composing “Floridante”, for instance, on 28 November 1721, it had its first performance on 9 December 1721. They didn’t have new sets and costumes for every new opera or new production then, new “clothes and scenes” were an extra attraction, they usually just took them out of stock.
        Such practices were common in Italy through the 19th century also.
        I know there is not a chance in hell they will go back to doing such things, I was just expressing a POV. Were the results really much worse than the slow, elaborate and expensive processes that are obligatory now? No way to know for sure but I doubt it.

          armerjacquino says:

          Poor old designers get a rough deal round here sometimes. Your ‘POV’, for example, is that their work and artistry doesn’t matter in the slightest, and their careers and livelihoods can be dismissed as a ‘slow, elaborate and expensive process’.

          • m. croche says:

            I’d disagree. Stage designs, costume designs and their creators are taken quite seriously around here. Grim’s opinion, rightly or wrongly (I’m not going to enter the fray), is around here a minority view.*

            “Slow, elaborate, and expensive process” is, by the way, a rather neutral description, not a prejudicial one. It’s basically what you yourself said in your previous comment.

            *The impish part of me would point out that traditional performances of Chinese opera don’t require elaborate sets (other than the standard two-chairs-one-table), and yet there are satisfactory, even superior artistic results.

            • armerjacquino says:

              Well, we disagree I guess. It’s not the first time I’ve found myself, somewhat to my surprise, having to defend the mere existence of designers.

              I fail to see how my description of how a show is designed is ‘basically the same’ as ‘slow, elaborate and expensive’, either. The process of design takes a while, but isn’t particularly slow per se. I don’t see how it’s elaborate at all. And expensive- well, more expensive than stock sets, but otherwise the expense is relative, isn’t it?

              Good for the Chinese Opera. Good for Handel in 1721. We can all list things that don’t need sets. Not sure how it helps other than, as I say, to negate the existence of designers.

            • m. croche says:

              And expensive- well, more expensive than stock sets, but otherwise the expense is relative, isn’t it?

              As the joke goes, “now we’re just haggling over the price.”

              I do think opera audiences now expect attractive, or at least interesting, sets and costumes. As JJ once put it “opera needs to look expensive”. I don’t think that there’s the least little chance that Grim’s proposal will be acted upon, which is why I think you’ve been overreacting.

            • grimoaldo says:

              It isn’t true that they did not have designers in the time I am talking about, a notice in the papers after the first performance of “Idomeneo” did not mention Mozart at all but said how much everyone loved the sets designed by Lorenzo Quaglio. They just didn’t have new sets and costumes every single time, they would re-use them. Seems sensible and economical to me, especially for a rarity unlikely to be revived over and over for years.

            • armerjacquino says:

              Croche: I don’t think there’s any chance it’ll be acted on either. I’m reacting to the suggestion that it would be preferable.

            • La Cieca says:

              In fact, Grimoaldo’s dream exactly describes how opera was done in a number of American regional companies: a week of rehearsal, some wrinkled drops carted in from Stivanello, and rented costumes that may or may not have had anything to do with the period of the opera. I once worked a production of Lodoletta in Newark in which the entire set for the final act had “BOHEME ACTE III” stenciled on the back.

              And there have actually been several new productions of I due Foscari that don’t recycle old sets from Gioconda The one directed by Thaddeus Strassberger is shared among Los Angeles Opera, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Theater an der Wien and The Royal Opera Covent Garden.

              The show could be thrown together in a few weeks as a vehicle for Meade, assuming, naturally, that a box office star of the magnitude of Placido Domingo happened to have those dates free. Otherwise, you see, the opera would fail to sell out, and Alan Gordon would use the occasion to call for Peter Gelb’s head for his extravagance in producing an opera nobody wanted to hear.

              Meanwhile, speaking of 19th century methods of opera production, how about going back to the Paris Opera’s genius cost-cutting measure of paying their ballet girls less than starvation wages so they were forced to prostitute themselves to the wealthy male patrons of the company? This way, you balance the budget and keep the backers happy at the same time.

            • phoenix says:

              Thanks for the link cieza. I’ll have to go back and listen to that 1970 Scala Vespri.
              -- Agree about her other performances as Elena. I didn’t specify any of Radvan’s Met Vespri because they were awkwardly sung and she wasn’t able to do much with them. I still feel her 2006 Wiener Staatsoper broadcast performance (Leo Nucci (Guido di Monforte), Franciso Casanova (Rodrigo), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Procida), Sondra Radvanovsky (Elena); cond.: Fabio Luisi) was one of the best I ever heard of that work -- but I don’t have a recording of that performance to prove it.

            • grimoaldo says:

              That’s right La C lots of regional companies used to do just what I was saying, that is partly what I meant. Here is a question -- how likely is it now that there would be a production of “Lodoletta” in Newark? Is it better to do “Lodoletta” on the sets of “La Boheme” than not to do “Lodoletta” at all?
              Yes I know “I Due Foscari” has been done in that production at those houses, I was saying that since Meade was so stunning in that aria, someone should do it for her. Isn’t it at least possible that people might come to see it because it was good if it had her, Fabiano and Stephen Powell in it?
              Did members of the corps de ballet in Paris make substantially less than seamstresses at that time, for instance? Being in the chorus or corps de ballet at an opera house was a highly sought position for women partly because they mingled with audience members who were rich and titled men, preferable to augmenting your wages earned by making silk flowers like Mimi by standing on a street corner and prostituting yourself to random passers-by. If you were really lucky a rich or titled man might make you his mistress or even marry you (one of the singers in Handel’s operas, Anastasia Robinson married the Earl of Peterborough and May Fortescue, who created small parts in the first G&S shows got engaged to the future Lord Cairns, but his family made him break the engagement, she sued him for breach of promise and won £10,000 which she used to start her own touring company.)
              Isn’t it the case that the Met simply fired all its dancers? didn’t they use to have their own opera ballet and now they don’t, they hire them in when they need them? is it better to have dancers on low wages or no dancers at all?
              The way things are set up at the Met at the moment is not producing good results either financially or artistically. Maybe they should think about trying some different approaches.

          Indiana Loiterer III says:

          Well, it was easier in Handel’s time, when opera companies only did new works in a narrow range of styles. Nowadays, opera companies present such a wide range of works (and rightly so!) that you don’t have a stock to rely upon.

    • 16.4
      kennedet says:

      God grimoaldo !! What a treacherous aria!! This aria could ruin your voice and career alone… if you don’t know what you’re doing. The register changes and jumps alone were scary. She handled it very well.

      • 16.4.1
        The_Kid says:

        Speaking of which: I just watched an YT clip of someone called Margarita Castro-Alberty sing this very creditably. Does anyone know where she is now?

          MontyNostry says:

          As it happens, I saw Margarita Castro-Alberty’s breakthrough performance in a concert version of Maria di Rudenz (or was it Maria di Rohan? I can never remember) in Paris, which also featured Marvis Martin, another singer who sort of disappeared after a promising start. MC-A did make an album of arias for Erato, which I had for a time.

          Krunoslav says:

          I heard Castro-Alberty at the Met as Donna Anna and the BALLO Amelia. Great vocal promise and some temperament but you kind of knew she wasn’t ever going to get it all together technically, and she didn’t. The Donna Anna foundered guess where, the end of “Non mi dir”, but had beautiful latinate sounds before that, and was certainly better than the asthmatic Alsatian hurdy-gurdy with a weak middle register and poor triplets that soon took on the role.

          But Castro-Alberty was no Castro-Tank.

          • manou says:

            She was the Raúl to her Fidel.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            What do you mean by ‘triplets’, in this context? I can’t offhand think of anywhere in the role of Donna Anna where she has to sing triplets. Is this a difference in UK-US usage, have I just missed them, or what?

          Hippolyte says:

          In 1982 during one of my very first trips to NYC, I attended an ill-fated Opera Orchestra of New York gala at Carnegie Hall where many of the scheduled singers canceled and Tony Randall who was the host was heckled mercilessly. However, the star of the evening turned out to be Castro-Alberty who sang the big arias from Due Foscari and Masnadieri. I remember the voice being lush and exciting and she got huge ovations and then I never heard her again.

  • 17
    Feldmarschallin says:

    Well Kruno here is one of the best versions of the aria. She almost makes the aria sound easy. Hope you approve of the triplets and she was 59 when she sung this aria.

    • 17.1
      Krunoslav says:

      Well, yes, I have known that recording since my teens! The old girl’s Constanze material is also amazing.

    • 17.2
      Krunoslav says:

      And of course there are great Mozarteans in every generation.

      • 17.2.1
        armerjacquino says:

        Well, I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this, and this is as good as any. Saw this for the first time last night, and it’s some of the best Mozart singing I’ve ever heard.