24 October 2007

Greeks bearing bids

According to the Guardian Unlimited, the "cash-strapped" government of Greece is scrambling to raise sufficient funds to purchase over $1 million worth of Maria Callas memorabilia at a Sotheby's auction on December 12.

The "voluminous" collection to be auctioned includes "a fabulous array of intimate letters, jewels, evening dresses, furniture, paintings, photographs, unseen stage notes and annotated musical scores released by the estate of Callas's husband, the late Italian industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini." The auction will include a number of items Meneghini purchased at the first estate sale of the diva's possessions back in 1978.

La Cieca's favorite part of this story is the name of the Sotheby's spokesperson: "Esmeralda Benvenuti."

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17 October 2007

Norma Rai

Culminating the month-long Maria Callas mania over at Rai 3, this Saturday the Italian radio network will broadcast a newly restored version ("il cui audio verrà restaurato per l'occasione") of the celebrated June 29, 1955 concert of Bellini's Norma.

Co-starring with La Divina are Mario del Monaco and Ebe Stignani, under the baton of Tullio Serafin. That broadcast should begin at 2:30 PM New York time; everyone else will have to puzzle it out from there.

While this Norma is hardly an "lost performance," currently available dubs of the broadcast are of frustratingly poor quality. Some are pitched incorrectly; others substitute bits of other performances from Callas commercial recordings or other sources. If this Saturday broadcast indeed presents a complete and cleaned-up version, joy will indeed be unconfined.

Oh, and here's a direct link to the Rai 3 player. (La Cieca thanks dear Herman Melville for both the tip and the headline.)

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15 October 2007

Pop-top frocks

New York-based artist Nikos Floros has created an artistic tribute to La Divina herself from 20 thousand beer and soft drink cans for an art exhibition in Athens.

The exhibition includes a sculptural gown inspired by Maria Callas's costume for Iphigénie en Tauride featuring ring-pulls that become a lace-like collar. A kimono sculpture is inspired by Madama Butterfly.

"Today’s temples are supermarkets, malls and department stores," the artist says. "That's where you exist."

Over a period of five years, Floros purchased more than 200,000 aluminium cans of soft drinks and beer and turned them into large-scale sculptures dedicated to La Divina’s spirit, among other things.

"Opera Sculptured Costumes" is on display at the National Bank of Greece’s Melas Mansion through October 19.

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19 September 2007

The new Callas?

Maria and Anna, morphed.

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13 September 2007


Sunday, September 16 will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of that most significant of all opera singers, Maria Callas. In honor of the diva, Unnatural Acts of Opera presents one of her rare New York performances, a concert version of Il pirata as performed at Carnegie Hall on January 27, 1959.
Unnatural Acts of Opera

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15 August 2007

Sai quale oscura opera laggiu si compia?

In fact, the opera is anything but obscure. But the performance has been seen only rarely since 1956.

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09 May 2007

Which Puritani: discuss.

La Cieca has finally found a way to harness the massive intellectual prowess of her commenters for what she hopes is a good and peaceful purpose. From time to time she is asked for recommendations on, well, this and that, and she's realized that you, cher public represent an paralleled resource for advising, counselling and general kibitzing. Our first question for the group: what's your recommendation for a recording of I puritani? "A.R." writes:
The frisson that Anna Netrebko created at Met recently piqued my interest in the work again- but I find myself dissatisfied with the array of recordings available. Joan I’d have to quickly count out- a lot of the time it sounds like she’s singing the phone book. Not a Bonynge fan either. Ditto La Sills- I just don’t like the timbre of her voice. I own the Caballe/Kraus recording and enjoy it- even without most of the high notes and no trill from Montsy. Despite that she always wins me over and Kraus makes a good fist of Arturo- I don’t understand the negative crits he got for this recording. When are people going to realise that the high D’s and high F were not meant to be sung full voice- I feel sure they were supposed to be sung in head voice- esp as Arturo is at his most miserable when these notes pop up.

Devia is good, albeit a little colourless. Mateuzzi has the high notes- shame everything under a G is flat, flat, flat. Have you heard the Freni/Pav recordings? I’m interested to hear them. I also have the Callas recording- but I can’t BEAR Di Stefano- too much scooping and painful open high notes. Is there a fabulous recording I’ve missed? If only La Scotto had done it- she would have been ideal. (I too am a Scotto worshipper!)

Any suggestions greatly appreciated!

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02 May 2007

Esser madre e un inferno

A rare chance to hear Evangelia Callas (mother of Maria) tell her side of the story. This audio clip from a 1962 television interview is in rather dim sound, but we do get a sample of Evangelia's singing voice!

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15 March 2007

Most grating

Many tears will be shed in heaven today by Nellie Melba, Claudia Muzio, Lotte Lehmann, Adelina Patti and (we suppose) the young Jill Gomez, since none of them made the list of "The 20 Greatest Sopranos of All Time" featured in the April issue of BBC Music. (Don't bother to click on that link, since the content isn't online.) The magazine's panel of "experts" selected the following 20 divas in ascending order of greatness:

20. Elly Ameling
19. Rosa Ponselle
18. Renata Tebaldi
17. Christine Brewer
16. Elisabeth Schumann
15. Karita Mattila
14. Gundula Janowitz
13. Galina Vishnevskaya
12. Régine Crespin
11. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
10. Emma Kirkby
9. Kirsten Flagstad
8. Margaret Price
7. Lucia Popp
6. Montserrat Caballé
5. Birgit Nilsson
4. Leontyne Price
3. Victoria de los Angeles
2. Joan Sutherland
1. Maria Callas

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17 January 2007

The most beautiful sound I ever heard

In honor of the one and only Met broadcast of Maria Callas, La Cieca announces yet another of her online chats. Join your darling doyenne on Saturday afternoon, January 20 to discuss the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor.

The Ravenswood Chat Room will open its doors at 1:15 PM EST Saturday. See you there!

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13 December 2006


Well, it had to happen sooner or later, and so it did happen, sometime between last night and tonight. La Cieca has decided she's taking Roberto Alagna's side in The Scandale.

Yes, yes, La Cieca hears your gasps and snorts of disbelief and contempt, but you know, cher public, La Cieca is, deep in her bleeding heart, always on the side of the underdog. And, yes, by this point Alagna is the underdog.

Of course La Cieca knows that Alagna brought this upon himself. But in life (as in opera) there are very few pure heroes and villains. Do we not, for example, weep for Manon as she so movingly expires, whether at Le Havre or in the desert near New Orleans? And yes, she brought most of her misery upon herself. If the poor dear thing had even a shred of morality, she could have saved everyone (particularly Des Grieux) whole cartloads of heartache. But morality wasn't what Manon was about; that's not how she was made.

Is it supposed to be news that Roberto Alagna is a hothead? Does he have a track record of behaving coolly and rationally in a crisis? Has he ever been known to say, "no comment" when asked a question, any question? So why is everyone so shocked, shocked to witness what should be -- by now -- familiar behavior?

La Cieca is of the "fool me once" school, frankly, when it comes to opera singers. And, to tell the truth, it's Stéphane Lissner who ought to be saying "shame on me" these days -- at least to himself. In other words, Lissner is not helping the situation by acting so inflexibly, refusing to negotiate with Alagna over his return to the theater.

Now, please understand, La Cieca is not saying that Lissner should simply cave; rather, she's suggesting that there is a win-win possible here, and Lissner is dropping the ball. It's not a particularly impressive act to fire a recalcitrant artist; basically the lawyers and the press office will have to do all the heavy lifting anyway. A great impresario is one who can bring an unruly tenor to heel, and, what's more, trick the tenor into thinking it was his own idea.

Take Rudolf Bing with Franco Corelli, for example. No artist was more "difficult" than Corelli, and yet Bing got him onstage for over 300 performances -- far more than he sang anywhere else in the world. Bing once joked that handling Corelli was what he was "underpaid" for, but in fact, that's what a general manager is supposed to do, to get important artists on the stage and before the public. Firing a singer is, in a sense, an admission of failure. In fact, Bing even admitted in later years that his inability to come to terms with Maria Callas was one of the worst blots on his record as General Manager of the Met.

In contrast, consider Lissner's inflexible behavior in the past few days. Yes, he's showing everyone who's boss, but meanwhile, he's presenting a sold-out "gala" Aida with Walter Fraccaro and Antonello Palombi alternating in the star tenor role. Yeah, I'm sure the audiences who have to sit through that are saying to themselves, "Well, it's excruciating, sure, but at least somebody put his foot down! Thank God La Scala has returned to its artistic mission of upholding the Rule of Law!"

Since last night, a couple more tidbits of information have surfaced suggesting that Alagna's sense of persecution is not 100% paranoia. To begin with, the video of the walkout.

Doesn't it strike you as odd that a television station should have such access to video footage that was recorded for DVD release? Does anyone think that someone in the Decca crew might have leaked it? Hardly. The only way the clip of Alagna's "exit" could have emerged was for the management of La Scala (i.e., Lissner) to make it available. And why ever would an opera house want to publicize so sordid an event? (Can you imagine, for example, that the Met's press department would supply the media with a sound bite of Domingo's being booed last week?) The answer is simple: La Scala is actively working to make Alagna appear the bad guy.

Furthermore, doesn't Palombi's "save" strike you as just a bit too miraculous? How often does it happen that the second cover is standing in the wings, warmed up and ready to bound onto the stage, when there is no prior warning that the artist he's covering might be in vocal distress? In other words, did Palombi know in advance that Alagna might be booed?

If you must know, La Cieca's tipping point on this issue was reading Norman Lebrecht's predictably anti-artist and pro-bandwagon comments this morning. The Alagnas are difficult, the Alagnas are self-absorbed, lot of opera houses are pissed off at the Alagnas, but of course this slap in the face of the honorable public of Milan is the last, the very last straw.

Well, Norma, your middlebrow maunderings are wrong yet again. This might be the end of the line for the Alagnas -- if they were the sort of dull, uninspired singers that mostly populate the world of opera today. But they're not. Despite their vocal flaws and outrageous behavior, they are something special and rare. The main reason that opera is in such dire straits today is that nobody wants to shell out hundreds of dollars for a ticket to hear some well-behaved mediocrity. (That is, unless that mediocrity's name is Fleming, but she's not working much at La Scala lately either.)

La Cieca will have more to say about this later; cher public, do chime in.

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27 October 2006


Peter Gelb's motto for the week: "Those Swarovski crystals are going on with or without you." Maria Guleghina sings the first Tosca of the season tomorrow night, jumping in for Andrea Gruber who is under the weather. A report from the dress rehearsal notes that "Gruber had nothing above about an A, Cura was rushing the conductor the entire time, and they both ended the opera by marking the 3rd act down an octave." Gruber was wheezing and sneezing all over Margaret Juntwait last night during the broadcast intermission, too. She's supposed to go on for the next performances November 1 and 4. Aprile Millo dons the tiara beginning on the 25th.

Oh, and if you're wondering what the proper term is for the matched set of tiara, necklace, earrings and whatever other sparkly baubles the well-dressed Floria flaunts, it's called a "garniture."

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13 September 2006

What you won't hear in Luisa Miller

Here's a YouTube clip of the original telecast of Luisa Miller, complete with the screamed "Brava Maria Callas!" before Renata Scotto's first solo. La Cieca is informed that (reasonably enough) this interruption had been edited out of the eagerly-awaited DVD version. Note, too, that the DVD will feature state-of-the-art video and audio restoration, unlike this rather faded VHS dub.

Also new and fresh on YouTube, a clip courtesy of Premiere Opera of the all time champion Turandot team, Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli.

La Nilsson's closeups were apparently filmed separately and lip-synched, but that's all to the good because this way we get to study up close the diva's modish "Yma Sumac meets Female Trouble" maquillage.

Nilsson/Corelli-Turandot 1970 Macerata

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12 September 2006

Renata's revenge

After more than a quarter of a century, Renata Scotto gets the last word over that silly queen who made a career of disrupting her Met performances. The DVD of the "Live from the Met" telecast of Luisa Miller was released today, and is available at Amazon.com at a 30% discount off the list price. This is the performance of January 20, 1979, during which Fernando or whatever her name was shrieked "Brava Maria Callas!" in the instant of silence before Scotto launched into "Lo vidi, e 'l primo palpito." No word so far as to whether the DVD preserves this non-Verdian interpolation, but the important news here is that this Luisa Miller is one of the triumphs of the early James Levine era at the Met, with Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Bonaldo Giaiotti, James Morris and of course La Scottissima herself in A+ form. If memory serves (remember, it's been 25 years since La Cieca's weary eyes have feasted on this video), the live camerawork is far simpler and more immediate than the overly tweaked fussiness that plagued the Brian Large extravaganzas of the 1980s.

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14 June 2006


The event that seemed poised to evoke the year's biggest outpouring of Schadenfreude has finally transpired. The critical response to Angela Gheorghiu's first staged Tosca (Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 13) could best be described as mixed. The diva's vocal and visual glamour elicited kind words from all the critics, despite general reservations about a lack of dramatic heft in her lyric soprano.

Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph was perhaps the least enchanted with Gheorghiu's performance. "Coy, flirtatious and manipulative, she radiates kittenish petulance and sings with velvety allure. But of Tosca's heart - of the peasant courage, cunning and command that Callas triumphantly emphasised - there was nothing. This Tosca has the soul of a phoney soubrette, and Gheorghiu's singing was simply too poised, small-scale and self-conscious to carry any sort of emotional impact." On the other hand, the Independent Online's Michael Church tells us that in Gheorghiu's Act 2 aria, "all the vocal glory we have come to expect from her is fully on display."

Tom Service in The Guardian called Gheorghiu's Tosca "a light-voiced, pious heroine," but noted that ". . . in the first act her jealousy is underplayed and you never really believe that this Tosca is capable of real venom or malice." On the MusicOMH.com site, Dominic McHugh reported "Polite applause greeted a bland performance of 'Vissi d'arte'. After this, however, she seemed to move into a higher gear. . . . Gheorghiu held the audience captive in the final minutes of this act, and provided more vocal thrills and a fuller tone in the last act..." McHugh voices the critical consensus when he concludes "this was not quite the debut that one had hoped for." (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

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03 December 2005

"All those lousy Traviatas"

Twelve years -- a quarter of my life! That's how long I've been La Cieca, or, more accurately, that's how long parterre box has been a part of my life. The lady over there on the right is the reason this all began: Maria Callas, for whose 70th birthday (December 3, 1993) I though it would be a nice little tribute to publish a one-off pamphlet called parterre box. Fifty print issues, ten years of online presence, and 60 hours of podcasts later, here we are! So, happy birthday to you, Maria, and much love to Enzo Bordello, Dawn Fatale, Hans Lick, Manuela Haltertop, Indiana Loiterer III, Ortrud Maxwell, Bitchy Spice... and all the rest of you wonderful people out there in the dark!


22 August 2005

Mario, Mario, Mario!

It appears that La Cieca has finally acknowledged that there is more to opera than high-voiced divas: tenors can be pretty amazing as well. As such, we've declared Mario del Monaco week at Unnatural Acts of Opera. The celebration begins this evening with the first act of Puccini's La fanciulla del West, the 1954 Florence May Festival performance, also starring Eleanor Steber, Giangiacomo Guelfi and Giorgio Tozzi, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting. More of Fanciulla follows later in the week, along with scenes from a pair of operas "bookending" the peak decade of del Monaco's career. From 1950 in Mexico City, the tenor is heard in the Nile Scene from Act 3 of Aida opposite Maria Callas; then, from 1959 at La Scala, he is Paolo to the Francesca da Rimini of Magda Olivero in a passionate love scene from the Zandonai opera.

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29 June 2005

Smashing the oligarchies

The decentralization of the music business is progressing so quickly La Cieca can hardly keep up. (Though it's not like she's completely in the loop; as you know, she only recently found out that Giulio Ricordi had died!) The very latest (as of this morning) is that Apple has launched a new build of iTunes will full podcasting support. They promise that the search/subcribe/update/download/sync process will be as simple and intuitive as purchasing a song from the iTunes Music Store. La Cieca will test-drive this new application in the next day or two, then give you a full report on the functionality or lack thereof. In case you're wondering, no, "Unnatural Acts of Opera" is not yet included in Apple's podcast directory, but we're working on that.

Another promising development is the partnership of Naxos of America and OverDrive, Inc. to provide downloadable classical recordings free of charge to cardholders at many of the nation's public libraries. The best part is that the service is web-based, so you can "check out" a digital version of a CD from your home or work computer, then listen to it at your leisure over the next couple of weeks. The digital files then expire and are "checked in" for use by another library patron.

This process strikes a particularly resonant chord with La Cieca. Back in the day, when she was a lowly Opera Infanta on the bayou, she had no access to classical music record stores. The only way to listen to opera (besides those lovely Met broadcasts) was to borrow records from the Louisiana public library system. (No, dear, they were not 78s; we were well into the microgroove era by then.) Anyway, the library provided me with my first aural glimpses of Wagner's Ring, the voices of Tebaldi and Callas, and, yes, even Blomdahl's Aniara. What a boon, then, for the little queens of the 21st century, who will have immediate access to so broad a swathe of the repertoire, while staying within the law. (There will be plenty of time for them to break it later.)

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20 June 2005

Sexual confusion at the opera

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, is using "sexual confusion" to prevent wear and tear on their costume collection:

"The traps installed for the Royal Opera House make male clothes moths appear to other males as females, by sticking female pheromones to their bodies.

"In a plot that could have come from an opera, males attempt to mate with the false females, but do not succeed . . . . moths were costing the Royal Opera House tens of thousands of pounds a year.

"The worst affected are ballet dancers' costumes, which get engrained with sweat, clothes moths' favourite taste.

"The Royal Opera House has around 2,000 costumes at Covent Garden at any one time, some of which are more than a century old . . . . Its archive includes the red dress Maria Callas wore in Tosca."

Here's more about this oddly familiar-sounding moth-on-moth action. Speaking of which, don't forget to check out La Cieca's all new, all-femme radio show!

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25 May 2005

"Sorry, ah thought you said Maria CALLAS"

All right, boys, get your bold-faced fonts out. It seems that at Oprah Winfrey's "Legends Ball," none other than Leontyne Price asked specially to meet fellow guest/legend Mariah Carey. La Carey (who admits that at first she thought the diva mistook her for someone else) reports that Lee chatted with her about her music and her recent video. Who knew? The pop star (or, La Cieca guesses, her publicist) then gushed ". . . this is a woman who has made history and paved the way for just everybody." (Next, I suppose, we'll hear that Tom Cruise wants to meet David Daniels.) And, you know, it's not like Lee and Mariah were short of someone to talk to; Oprah's guest list also included Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Roberta Flack, Coretta Scott King, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Della Reese, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Cicely Tyson, Halle Berry and Nancy Wilson. Anyway, here's the story: MARIAH THRILLED THAT OPERA DIVA PRICE KNOWS WHO SHE IS.

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