Hello again, mon cher public! Yes, it's been a long, grisly summer, but La Cieca is one tough old bird. In fact, ASTRID VARNAY herself was saying just the other day, "She's so tough, that Cieca, she's like a young me." I remember another time, in Cleveland, I think it was, Astrid said to me, "Cieca," she said, "You're tough. A survivor. A real mensch. Now, if you could just learn to keep your trap shut." But, you know, that was just like Astrid . So generous. Now, where was I going with that? Oh, yes. We've got a lot of ground to cover since last time, so let's roll!
HBO has begun principal photography for "Augusta: My Life as a Diva", the film version of the life of JESSYE NORMAN. The biopic has already started lensing in Norman's native Georgia, as well as Salzburg, Berlin, London and New York. JASON ALEXANDER will costar as JAMES LEVINE, ANTONIO BANDERAS portrays PLACIDO DOMINGO, JANET JACKSON will impersonate KATHLEEN BATTLE, and HBO has persuaded one of Hollywood's biggest stars to portray La Norman herself-- WESLEY SNIPES!

Licia's Pet: The big show in town last week was definitely the LICIA ALBANESE Puccini Foundation Gala Concert Thang at Alice Tully Hall September 16, La Cieca's first time ever at what has become a cult event in the Manhattan musical firmament. The concert has a slightly ditzy quality not unlike that of Albanese herself; presenters and winners and hangers-on all make charming and incoherent speeches, and the running order seems to be an ad hoc concern at best. Among the honorees were Albanese herself, EVE QUELER, the late SERGIO FRANCHI and, oh, dozens of other people, so you can see why the ceremony stretched on for four hours.

The afternoon started with a bang in the form of Mme. Albanese's legendary reading of our own lovely national anthem. Of course one knows her Opening Night arrangement (soprano with audience backup) but this was my first experience of the solo version. The two interpolated high B-flats are of course celebrated (and pretty damn impressive for a woman of 70, let alone Licia); what I didn't realize is that she interprets the song as if it were, well, a song:

agitato (pp) dolcissimo e legato
O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming

piu allegro sf sempre ff, marcato
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air...

subito p (misterioso)
Gave proof through the night

cre - scen - do fff (quasi parlato)
That our flag was still there!

La Albanese, fetching in a black cocktail dress and balancing atop Scotto Heels, deserved every decibel of the ballpark-style ovation the audience (I almost said "crowd") lavished upon her; she reappeared frequently thereafter for impromptu anecdotes, introductions and snatches of melody. Had we asked nicely, I believe she would have shared her favorite recipes.

The official Mistress of Ceremonies, however, was another Legend of Song, PATRICE MUNSEL, who is Auntie Mame. Resplendent in white silk crepe harem pants and jacket heavily encrusted with gold paillettes, she succeeded almost completely in keeping this train on its tracks, regaling us along the way with a soupcon of COLE PORTER ("But if, Licia, I'm the bottom-- and you know I'm not-- you're the top!") And what a speaking voice-- ladylike yet sexy, like a cross between KITTY CARLISLE and SALLY KELLERMAN! Why isn't she doing commercial voiceovers? Munsel was among the many to laud Licia with that double-edged brand of compliment that goes like this: "When I was just a little girl/boy growing up in [location] I used to listen to Licia's records/broadcasts all the time..." Everybody told that story; but by the time GIORGIO TOZZI was reminiscing about his infancy listening to his Papa's weathered Albanese 78's, Licia's smile began to harden. At least no one called her La Vecchia.

Now, I see this massive inherent flaw in the format of this awards presentation; the winners end up sung off the stage by the presenters. Example: Tenor ROBERT IARUSSI (a Study Grant Winner) sang what I am sure was a very nice "Amor ti vieta" and gratefully accepted his award from JAMES KING, who then proceeded to sing "Wintersturme" like a fucking god. So you see, folks, I honestly can't tell you what Mr. Iarussi sang like-- it's not his fault; it's just unfair to contrast a beginning singer with one of the great voices of the century. And the veteran singers look like they're showboating at the kids' expense. It's not true, of course, but it looks bad. Those in charge at the Albanese Foundation should consider a different format for next year's event. Not that I would want to dispense with some of the vocal treats these "guest presenters" provided, from ROBERT MERRILL's mellow "What'll I do?" to LUCINE AMARA's bang-on "Pace, pace;" from BARBARA CONRAD's committed "Condotta" to ROSALIND ELIAS's soulful "Non ti scordar di me."

But, for La Cieca's money, the hit of the afternoon was MARTA EGGERTH KIEPURA, who twinkled and sighed and smiled a wistful little half-smile and finally consented to attempt "just one little song." A standing ovation heartened her enough to try "just one little encore." No, my dears, Frau Kiepura was not hiding behind the door when they were handing out brains. It was almost an embarassment of riches that the encore, a Hungarian folk song, was ravishingly sung, two and a half minutes of spun silk. La Albanese staved off the threat of yet another encore by tottering onstage to heap congratulations upon her delightful colleague. The two divas exchanged kiss after kiss, then they brought down the house with their classic "no, after you" exit. La Munsel's take on the preceding love-feast: "These two great ladies of the stage could give all of us acting lessons." (Perhaps not so incidentally, Mme. Kiepura has recently added Heidi Kreisler -- Licia's role in "Follies" -- to her repertoire.)

B.J. (Stand-up Opera) WARD did her routine of arias and yak. Her amplified "Broadway Baby" speaking voice was a little hard on La Cieca's ears, and her material is twice-told at best (may that wretched BIRGIT NILSSON "comfortable pair of shoes" chestnut rest in peace already!) But she's cool; La Cieca cannot find it in her heart to dish anyone with the balls to pop a high F into "Ernani." My bet is she'd be a hoot as Olympia-- or a double handful as Despina. Any takers?

At long last, presenters, winners, guests and all (and there were millions of them) assembled onstage to sing the final chorus from "Turandot." And Licia held that last high B longer than anybody!

A "dream team" cast of SYLVIA MCNAIR, RUTH ANN SWENSON, CECILIA BARTOLI, ROBERTO ALAGNA, BOJE SKOVHUS and BRYN TERFEL will star in the Metropolitan Opera's world premiere of "Amici", the new opera buffa from JOHN CORIGLIANO and WILLIAM HOFFMAN. "Amicii" is a fantasy set in a mythical kingdom called "New York", where whitebread twenty-somethings live in fabulous apartments they couldn't possibly afford, where everyone sits around all day long sipping designer coffee and trading second-hand zingers, where the men are all closet cases and women all have bad haircuts. The sextet have already laid down tracks for the Act One finale, "Saro la per te". An "Us" magazine cover is in the works.

And what's the deal with this Alagna guy? Is he misunderstood, or is he some kind of a nut? Is he a real, individual talent, or just EMI's male Cecilia Bartioli? How did he become such a critic's darling? (Well, maybe that part's not so mysterious. Between the singer's unyielding good taste and his pouty Sicilian rentboy looks, he's a British opera critic's wetdream come true.) He claims he's never had a voice teacher, refuses to work with a coach, says he learned everything he knows from listening to other singers' records. And he says stuff like "...I listened to everything-- opera, orchestras, singers, chamber music-- and today I am a recording bulimic." Sure, Bobby, but is that a good thing or a bad thing? If his EMI debut CD is any indication, he's a light tenor with a pingy top voice. It's a pretty sound, but... I worry about the lack of a real "core" to the voice-- even the resonant acoustic of this recording doesn't conceal a pronounced breathy quality. And his singing style is schizophrenic, either hyperkinetic or dead in the water, either belted or crooned, with no middle ground. Between these extremes he favors the "clean, modern" style: his voice allows no rubato, no portamento. Is that supposed to be a good thing? In April we'll hear his Rodolfo at the Met, and then maybe we can judge for ourselves. You know La Cieca will keep a completely open mind. (And, please, someone talk to Mr. Alagna about those fey, smirky album cover photos-- he looks like MICHAEL FEINSTEIN!)

Only disconnect: I tried, God knows I tried to like "Mathis der Maler" at New York City Opera. Please don't think I'm a bad person, but I find this opera a sanctimonious bore, way overlong and diffuse and the title character so poorly drawn as to be a grey hole at the middle of the work. Yes, the Nazis banned this work, and they were right, if for the wrong reasons. La Cieca thinks those who venerate this work for its "political significance" are missing the boat as bad as Goebbels.

Dilettante that she is, La Cieca couldn't help thinking Meyerbeer did a better job depicting the Reformation in "Les Huguenots". (I'll pause for a moment to let the hissing die down.) Now, think about it. Feuding Catholics and Protestants? A beautiful strong-willed noblewoman coerced into a politically-motivated marriage? The best-intentions manipulations of a liberal-minded ruler leading to a massacre? The difference between "Mathis" and "Huguenots" is that Meyerbeer accomplished something Wagner called "emotionalizing the intellect:" the love story softens us up so we feel the tragedy of intolerance. And the admittedly lurid denouement (the Catholic father unintentionally orders the execution of his Protestant daughter) brings home the horror of religious bigotry in an blunt but powerful (and entertaining) way.

Well, that's just not Hindemith's style. The vast canvas of religious strife should set Mathis' conflict in thrilling relief; instead it overpowers his lackluster, dramatically tepid vacillation. I tell you, Mathis makes Pelleas look butch. You'd think "Mathis" is going to be about how Mathis transforms his doubts and sufferings into great art. No. It's about giving up, putting away the tools of your art and just sitting down waiting to die. Now, that theme isn't necessarily morbid: look at "The Tempest" or the Four Last Songs. But these are works of old men: they know what they're writing about. When he wrote Mathis, Hindemith was 38, an age when most men still feel like they can conquer the world. I think that's one reason the whole resignation theme rings false. The other is that the character doesn't have much of anything to disengage from: Mathis is no Hans Sachs. My guess is that the historical Mathis tired of having to watch his back all the time and said to hell with it, I can make my art without all this political crap. But Hindemith depicts that type of masochistic romantic renunciation stuff that needs a Wagner to avoid bathos. And (need I say it) Mr. Hindemith, you're no Dick Wagner.

I don't think the City Opera forces deserved quite the trashing they got from the local press. Yes, the show was done on the cheap, and pretty much looked it, but it would be madness to sink a fortune into a production you can't ever revive. It was a mistake, I think, to use that ruined church as a unit set: there's no "War and Peace" before/after contrast. Plus the playing area was off-off-Broadway sized-- four people made a crowd. RHODA LEVINE's direction was mostly harmless, though the Lutheran/Catholic insurrection in Tableau Two was risible: talk about your Bible Thumpers. Ursula's big Straussian aria went for little due to the aimless blocking Levine imposed on LAUREN FLANIGAN; more damagingly, that Dream Ballet looked like AGNES DE MILLE's worst nightmare. The symbolism of the ribbon (relationship, connectedness, commitment) is Teutonic enough, but Levine festooned her cast in red streamers--Flanigan was trussed up like something from the Vogue bondage issue. The cute little fag next to me commented, "The last time I saw so many red ribbons on a stage, I was at the Tony Awards."

WILLIAM STONE as Mathis impressed with a smooth medium-weight voice, what the Germans call a Kavalierbariton. I'd like to hear him as the Count, Giovanni, maybe Posa. Lauren Flanigan improves all the time: a powerful but elegant young-dramatic, she should be doing those gigs CHERYL STUDER gets offered (and cancels). MARY DUNLEAVY and ROBYNNE REDMON did lovely jobs in roles with few vocal opportunities (Ms. Redmon mostly had to sing counterpoint while getting raped in a leftover "Puritani" dress, which can't be fun); MICHAEL HAYES displayed a powerful, roughhewn voice. The crowd just ate up ALLAN GLASSMAN, but I found his voice too "fixed," with only two speeds, loud and off. The role of the Cardinal is difficult, true, but Glassman made it sound well-nigh impossible. I should mention that I saw a performance when ROBERT DUERR stepped in for CHRISTOPHER KEENE. As far as I could tell, he led with authority and consideration for his singers. I say bravo to him and bravo to his hard-working and poetic orchestra. May I hear them all again in a more likable work.

I swear I must have dozed off at some point during "Farinelli", because I missed the big confrontation scene. You know, "they drummed you out of La Scala, so you've come crawling back to Covent Garden. But Covent Garden doesn't go for booze and dope." And I was so looking forward to the scene when Farinelli flushed Handel's wig down the toilet. My dear, surely the real Farinelli could not have lived a whole life of B-movie clichs corny enough to make even PATTY DUKE cringe! As, for example:

  • we open on the aging, embittered singer looking into the mirror and remembering humbler but happier days (a la FANNY BRICE). . .
  • when the fifteen-year-old divo-to be is singing in public for the very first time ever, and who should just happen to be passing by this humble country fair in some obscure Italian village? Why. . . it's Mr. Ziegfeld, uh, Mr. Handel, I mean.
  • and so, on the spot, the teen castrato changes his name to "Farinelli" because of some stupid and obscure pun on the word "farina" (flour). And the peasants shout, "Bravo Farinelli!" ("Say it again!" "Vicki Lester!")
  • and then Farinelli becomes this big star, see, but insists on performing his brother's lousy music because he's really loyal, like BETTY GRABLE in "When My Baby Smiles at Me"
  • and (this is kinda sad) he has only one real friend, this little disabled kid he sings lullabies to and who reminds him that maybe being a great big star isn't the worst thing in the world (this child could give MARGARET O'BRIEN lessons in bathos)
  • and he gets drunk at a party and mouths off, deeply offending tout le beau monde (see "The Helen Morgan Story", "Star!" "The Doors", to name just few)
  • and he has these nightmares about riding a big white horse-- he supposedly lost his cojones in a riding accident, right?-- so he can't sleep without opium ("I need a doll!")
  • on The Big Night he strides on stage and the conductor gives him his cue and the great big star promptly loses it completely and totters! and wavers! and crumples! and swooooons! and the crowd GASPS! (Sorry, but DIANA ROSS, among a multitude of others, has been there first and done it better).
  • but the climax of Farinelli (no, that's not really the best choice of words, is it?) is when we learn that (oh, the horror! the horror!) he didn't really fall off a horse after all! (Of course he didn't. "Riding accident" was just a polite euphemism for castration-- no one really believed it, any more than you really believed your best friend's story about "running into a doorknob" when she came back from summer vacation with a cute new nose.)

And when Farinelli isn't melodrama, it's soft-core porn, wallowing in oh-so-tasteful threeways between (among?) the brothers Broschi and various busty baroque chicks. I will say that STEFANO DIONISI (the TOM CRUISE lookalike who plays the divo) does have a cute little ass (which makes up for his bad teeth), but all the sex is 100% hetero. (Urk!) What about the documented historical fact that Farinelli's androgynous stage presence attracted admirers (and, some scholars believe, lovers) of both sexes? Not a word.

As for the the fade-out, with the blissful Broschis (husband, wife, and brother) awaiting the arrival of the stork...

What's worse, the opera scenes are lifeless and dumb. BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI even did a better job in "Luna"! Every scene looks just the same: before a faux-Baroque backdrop, Mr. Dionisi lip-synchs and wiggles his booty; the ladies in the audience cream. He even wears the identical helmet over and over, accessorized with different plumes.. The camp highlight is a scene set in a garden with a 20-foot tall peacock unfurling its tail in the background as the hormonally challenged weltstar does his florid thing. Don't you think reminding the audience of secondary sexual characteristics during a castrato's performance is in the worst possible taste?

Oh, yes, the ultrahyped "morphed" castrato voice of Farinelli is fleet but insubstantial and far more "feminine" in timbre than a real castrato's . (I base my opinion on a young male soprano I heard at an audition a few years ago-- an illness just before puberty left him the physiological equivalent of a castrato. His sound was neither feminine nor boyish; the closest equivalent I can find is the "rock scream" sound some heavy-metal frontmen produce, a cold but exciting head-chest mix.) Unfortunately, the engineers chose to base their sound on the voice of anatomically correct DEREK LEE RAGIN, who embodies every cliche you've ever heard about counter-tenors (weak, breathy, hooty). Why ever was Ragin cast instead of, say, JOCHEN KOWALSKI or BRIAN ASAWA, exponents of a ballsy, energized brand of virtuoso male soprano vocalism? I am told le public francais adore Ragin, but, then, they feel the same way about JERRY LEWIS and, for that matter, BARBARA HENDRICKS.

La Cieca is a regular contributor to parterre box , the queer opera zine.