18 January 2008

O brother where art thou

An Italian TV report on the already infamous all-Alagna-all-the-time Orphée.

Now, David Alagna may not be one of the world's great stage directors, but he certainly is among the cutest!

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15 January 2008

You love Lucy

La Cieca pulled a string or two and managed to get permission to embed a clip from the VAI Lucia so recently lauded by Our Own Niel Rishoi. Of course YouTube video and audio is severely compressed, but the imaginative viewer will surely get the gist that this is a performance for the ages.

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Anna as Anna?

La Cieca is loath to scoop dear Bradley Wilber, but rumors are swirling once again about future seasons at the Met. Perhaps the most controversial (among the cher public, at least) of these plans is a new production of Anna Bolena to open the 2011 season, with Anna Netrebko's pretty head on the chopping block. Further casting at this point is not set, though La Cieca is confident that speculation will run rife in the comments section.

Now, La Cieca is just going to suggest that we all don't go off the deep end instantly and unanimously here, despite what at least some of may regard as perfect justification for doing so.

It does seem apparent that if Netrebko is determined to do bel canto (not saying "should be doing" mind you), then Bolena does make more sense than, say, Puritani or Lucia. Anna (Mrs. Tudor, I mean) relies less on vocal brilliance qua brilliance than those two roles, and the "fiery" character of the rejected queen is the sort of dramatic type that appeals to Ms. Netrebko's lively theatrical instincts. We should also keep in mind that she now has more than three years of lead time and the availability of Scotto as a coach; as such she does have the opportunity to delve beyond a superficial reading of the music. (Again, no guarantees...)

It will also help, I think that the only "obligatory" sopracuto is the D at the end of the first act, a high interpolation so relatively that even Carol Vaness used to sing it.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Need La Cieca remind any of you that the duration from 2008 to 2001 is the equivalent of a century in Gelb Years. By that time we may end up with Christine Ebersole opening the season in Pikovaya Dama.

Your doyenne further has heard that the title role in Simon Boccanegra (2010-2011?) has been reassigned to Placido Domingo, with Thomas Hampson shifted into a revival of Macbeth -- opposite whom, La Cieca cannot venture to guess, though it's a safe bet the cover will be Cynthia Lawrence. Domingo, La Cieca hears, is already preparing an "out of town tryout" for Verdi's noble corsair with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

But speaking of Macbeth, La Cieca regrettably has a previous engagement and so will not be able to take in this evening's Lawrence/Ataneli version of the Scottish Opera. Any volunteers to serve as Guest Critic?

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14 January 2008

Lucia di DVD

Guest critic Niel Rishoi reviews the VAI DVD release of Lucia di Lammermoor.

OK, this is IT. Barring the cuts, this is the Lucia of Gaetano Donizetti. Not that misguided travesty at the Met, not Natalie Dessay's vocally juddery overwoughtness. No schtick, no Carol Burnetting around. Just Donizetti and Cammarano's Romantic drama, pure and simple. Real artists, real singers. Performing it straight, as if their lives depended on it. No gimmicks. No BS. You watch this 40 year old performance, and you see and hear a kind of authority and rightness of approach that just doesn't happen often nowadays Here we have music. Here is all the garlic, red wine, passion and organic Italian musical DRAMA. The action contained within the singing. It's a miracle, nothing less.

The picture is a bit grainy, the sets standard issue. Does it matter? Give me a break (NO).

We start with Bergonzi. Tenore supremo. Short, stumpy (yet handsome here), gestures of stock vintage. Yet, he creates drama through voice alone;"Vi disperda!" cuts right to the bone. Debonair in the old-fashioned manner. Ardent, the ultimate tenor hero. Perfect. Voice, voice voice - in awesome form here. "Fra poco a me ricovero" just splendid: it's met with a roaring ovation. Bergonzi and Scotto do not have the sensual interplay of Ricciarelli and Carreras - they don't make a lot of eye contact and are sometimes hilariously buried in their own "work" - but they are together all the way vocally and musically.

Zanasi. "Another" Italian baritone of his time, extinct today. A darkly handsome man, he has a commanding presence. He sings a solid "Cruda, funesta smania," beginning with a slightly muscular overemphasis, yet it suits the piece; but the line, upper extensions of ease, and expression is just right.

Plinio Clabassi. A Raimondo of unusually fine caliber, with a mellow, steady, consummately produced tone - he evinces a genuine control over it, and uses it flexibly - no park and bark approach here. Moreover, he makes the character figure prominently: he really delivers a tale in his "Dalle stanze, ove Lucia," setting up the mad scene fittingly.

Whoever said Scotto was a second-stringer should be thumped on the head, then made to hasten and acquire this release. She is spectacular, nothing short of miraculous here. What may have been accepted as standard then registers as something extraordinary now. Scotto is in marvelous voice: that brisk, tangy sound, slightly piercing on high, is bracingly clear, pure and perfectly steady throughout. She has never sounded more appealing, nor so classically Italianate in tone and manner. Her coloratura, while not of Sutherlandian velocity, is neat, in place, and confidently deployed. Trills are not a prominent thing of disctict articulation, yet they are discerned - and importantly, uses them effectively in the line where called for. High notes pop out quite strongly. What's most important here is she does that all-important shaping and binding of lines into an expressive whole; she has a way of magically "dropping in" and connecting phrases, with a wide range of dynamics, and her diction is an absolute joy - no alteration of vowels or slushing over of them. She makes every word clear, and meaningful. The line in "Regnava nel silenzio" is ideal, true, unfussed, yet so very sustained on a level of gripping narrative. "Verranno a te sull'are" is pristinely, gorgeously sung, as is "Soffriva nel pianto." This kind of cantabile singing should be taken heed by any budding Lucia today.

But what is most especially distinctive is that in each isolated number, she tells a story. You see in her face, the spontaneity of her delivery of the words and expressions, how they register upon the listener as internal thoughts, given out to the audience. What's most important here, though, is that she is so not trying to force external gimmicks onto the characterization. The question never forms in the mind, what kind of a character is Lucia? A spineless wimp? Sick from the start? A mad hatter? No, the Lucia here is one that uninformed individuals will never understand: she is a 19th century Romantic heroine, a girl in love with Edgardo. Scotto reacts in each episode as if the character were hearing the statements of the others in the story for the first time. It has a uniquely-alive spontaneity, unusually free of calculation. I'm sick of the discussion of whether Lucia is mentally ill from the start, based on her occult meanderings in "Regnava nel silenzio;" if anyone knew of literature, religious superstitions and so forth of that time, these were conventional devices in Romantic melodramas. Ghosts and apparitions are commonplace. So, then, Scotto just accepts Cammarano's text, and tells it without any manipulation or presumption. She or we do not think Lucia mentally ill from the get-go.

Scotto's emotional honesty never falters, not once. She is convincing in the scene with Enrico, bringing just the right amount of anguish, her reactions often touching; in "Se tradirmi," you see her pleading to God most plausibly. In the wedding scene, Scotto is riveting, and does what Mariella Devia had a hard time establishing in her La Scala 1992 video: show the abject despair and desolation of Lucia, as the hope drains out of her. Devia has the astounding vocal technique that kept her singing better longer, but she does not have, by a considerable margin, Scotto's all-abiding charisma and out-there personality. Back to the Wedding Scene: the sextet, onto the end of the act, just sizzles and explodes with drama - those voices just pour out with thrilling abandon. Exciting stuff, this.

After all my extravagance of description, I'll have to think of ways to go further concerning the Mad Scene: it's a revelation. One of the best, hands down, I have ever seen performed. Every American soprano and all directors should watch this. This is how it should be done. In the service of the music, no gimmicks.

Scotto is in her element. Intensely musical, letting the scene flow with astonishing naturalness. Again, she's telling a story. The audience doesn't see this, but the TV viewer does: close-ups reveal the soprano absolutely into her music/storymaking. Scotto has the audience confidently in the palm of her hand, but not for a moment is she calculating or manipulative: it is, rather, an artist in full sureness and specific aim in what she is doing - she's fascinating to watch at every point, you can't take your eyes off her. She's living the situation moment by moment. We get no hysterics, no forced "mad acting" or cheap effects (which I despise). Lucia is totally removed from reality, in her childlike state, moving around like a little ghost in her own little but all-consuming world. Apart from a few moments of fright (the "il fantasma" sequence is powerful), she's deliriously happy, living out her bliss with Edgardo. Most of all, though, finally, you get the full power and pathos of what Donizetti intended. Scotto weds the text with the music so skillfully so that you get the full effect how how beautifully they complement each other. She does not allow the music to be compromised, so she takes care to make all the actions fit in, rather than standing out, as is the wont of too many a soprano. Scotto's bravura accomplishment is a triumph, and what a fortuitous circumstance that these documents exist, and that we have privy to them.

The bows and biz in the lengthy applause after the flute with cadenza, is however, pure Scotto. She steps out of character to acknowledge the ovation. No objections at all; it is decidedly part of the show. Very much like Cossotto, oh thank thank you, oh so humble me but I deserve it. I'm beginning to think these kinds of self-possessed artists, who don't display false modesty very well, are the lastingly memorable artists. Infinite self-belief, a healthy dose of the imperious ego, wanting to please, absolutely certain of their merit, and a kind of inborn dementedness: it translates into a very personal charisma, which defines who they are. They're to be preferred. We want personalities, a personal statement, an individual MO. Wallflowers, generic, unidentifiable, pedantic, please go home.

Without a doubt, this is the video Lucia of choice. Even though it's cut, it retains and fleshes out the truest spirit of the piece. -- Niel Rishoi

VAI DVD 4418 Lucia: Renata Scotto; Edgardo: Carlo Bergonzi; Enrico: Mario Zanasi; Raimondo: Plinio Clabassi; Arturo: Angelo Marchiandi; Alisa: Mirella Fiorentini; Normanno: Giuseppe Baratti. NHK Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Bartoletti. Japan, 1967.

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10 January 2008

An Orpheus from Hell

Over the years we have heard many different versions of Gluck’s Orphée. One can choose the Vienna version for castrato, which is shorter and simpler (or better: equally difficult, but in a less spectacular way), the Paris rewrite for tenor or the Berlioz reworking for the distinguished mezzo Pauline Viardot (Anne Sophie von Otter sang this version in Stockholm a few weeks ago). In short, a singer can “play” with the role in order to show his/her ability in portraying Apollo’s son: however, any adaptation should respect the spirit of Gluck’s masterpiece.

Eh, che faro?Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Orphée which opened on January 8 in Bologna, starring Roberto Alagna in the main role. Together with his lesser-known brothers David (director & composer) and Frédérico (scenic designer), the French-Italian tenor presented a rather unusual patchwork, with heavy cuts (almost all the dances and the great aria “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme” are omitted, while “Objet de mon amour” has been reduced to a single stanza) and the tenor part rewritten in a lower key, in order to fit in with Alagna’s chronic problems with the high register.

Moreover, the role of Amour (originally sung by a soprano) has been reassigned to a baritone: in fact, instead of the God of Love, we have a gravedigger who leads a modern-day Orphée into a death cell in order to save his wife from a group of mummies. In the third act, Eurydice attempts to seduce the gravedigger, threatening to elope with him. Orphée decides he has to look at her in order not to lose her again(!) She dies, of course, and Orphée chooses to be buried with her. (Apparently, Alagna didn’t like the original happy ending).

Now, all this may sound like a bad dream, or at least a cheap mise en scène of an Offenbach operetta, but that is just what Alagna’s Orphée is about. One can understand that such a humble singer as Alagna might have wanted an Orphée to call his own, yet he’d better have written it together with his oh-so-smart little brothers, instead of stealing Gluck’s name for this trivial farce. Yet, we cannot forget that such a shame also involves both the opera house’s superintendent Marco Tutino and the musical director of the show, Giampaolo Bisanti, whose bland interpretation and eccentric tempos (too fast in the pit, too slow on stage, the pairing of these two musical realms being a mere accident) made a bad thing worse.

Alagna shouted like he was singing Cavalleria Rusticana on a bad evening in a big house (Bologna’s theater is rather small), but the voice is too thin and not well projected, while what remains of the high register is often off key. His Eurydice, Serena Gamberoni, is a tiny sopranino, with a non-existent low register and shrilling high notes, in the manner of old-fashioned soubrettes. French baritone Marc Barrard was the grotesque, wobbly Amour. Audience reaction was mixed: a few loud booe and a big round of applause. Gluck turned into a poor imitation of Mascagni? Who cares, as long as we have The Brothers Alagna! -- Antonio Tamburini

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08 December 2007

Barenboim sings again!

Introducting a new guest critic, Giulia Grisi, who blogs regularly for "Il Corriere della Grisi."

La Scala's 2007-8 opera season opened last night (December 7) with a new production of Tristan und Isolde. The Milanese theatre hadn't presented Wagner's masterpiece since 1978, when Carlos Kleiber's masterful interpretation became an instant classic, in spite of a not-so-sensational cast (Wenkoff, Ligendza, Baldani, Moll).

Superintendent Stéphane Lissner must have thought it was time to try it again, counting on the power of the music and the experienced production team, with conductor Daniel Barenboim, director Patrice Chéreau and set designer Richard Peduzzi (of the 1976 Bayreuth Ring). After all, everyone knows that singers aren't really that important in Wagner, nowadays... are they?

The rehearsals period was something less than idyllic because of problems with the unions, yet Barenboim's conducting can be called ideal: a beautiful, clean orchestra, rich in color and atmosphere -- in fact much more "singing" than the singers on stage. we can indeed describe Daniel B. as the true "deus ex machina" and the real protagonist of the night. Conducting from memory, he has led the La Scala orchestra towards a real Wagnerian sound and has made everything he could to help the singers, literally breathing with them, reducing the orchestral volume when they needed it, pumping it up when they could not finish a phrase. Through his conducting have felt the epic, the passion destroying every rule, the magnificent night, the eternal suffering -- in short, the Wagnerian drama we couldn't see on stage, where a great, realistic canal boat, stark grey walls, some staircases and a lot of trench coats were visible. Chéreau and Peduzzi presented their familiar Wagnerian mise en scène, utterly realistic and utterly ugly, with some dramaturgical errors.

This "avant-garde" art is so past and over that only an theater so behind the times as La Scala can appreciate it. Twenty-three years have passed since this team's modern dress Lucio Silla production here -- and even that was not a success.

Waltraud Meier is a brilliant actress, ravishing and sexy. However, her voice is faded in the lower octave (that's quite strange, since she began as a mezzo) and in the upper range she shrieks more than she sings. Often out-of-tune, she was able to sing the role to the end thanks to her experience and to Barenboim, who aided her in every possible way, underlining some beautiful intentions in her interpretation and drawing a veil over some glaring flaws in her singing (especially in the Liebestod).

Ian Storey is more a crooner than a Wagnerian tenor: a small, short voice, with insufficient projection, he was neither a hero nor a lover nor a dying prince. Tristan's love and drama were confined to the orchestral pit. Brangäne, the Wagner "specialist" Michelle De Young, offered the worst vocal performance of the night, with the possible exception of Matti Salminen's superannuated and shouty König Marke. Handsome Gerd Grochowski barked a rather conventional Kurwenal.

To make a long story short, La Scala has presented a Tristan und Isolde for orchestra and conductor. We may be too "addicted to voices", but without Barenboim and his experience in minimizing the singers' problems, this opening night would have been nothing special. -- Giulia Grisi, translated by Antonio Tamburini.

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27 November 2007

Diva, from head to mistletoe

Our Own Gualtier Maldè reflects on Maria Guleghina's first Met Norma.

True confession: I love Maria Guleghina, I really, really love her. I know her flaws but her strengths are such that they sweep aside severe demerits that would consign any other artist to filth. Among contemporary singers she is one artist who thinks big, sings big with a big voice and gives everything she has even when it is more than she can afford vocally or artistically. She lives dangerously onstage and at the end of the night there is blood on the stage floor, sometimes hers, sometimes the composer's. She may flirt with vocal disaster but she is never routine or boring.

When she was announced as Norma, I felt some trepidation - would this be the breaking point in my love affair with the Russian diva? This is a role where guts and temperament can only get you so far. A lot of the substance of the role is written into the notes and the range of vocal demands is superhuman. Guleghina's rough, approximate singing at the "Macbeth" new production premiere had earned her critical brickbats (the second performance I attended was much better) and it seemed that bel canto was something beyond her reach at this point. Guleghina has sung Norma before but somewhat outside of the main international circuit and not for a few years.

Now I am sure that over the Sirius network this was not anywhere near a complete musical triumph. However in the house it was certainly impressive and often very, very moving. Guleghina's conception of the role is greater than her technical means of achieving it but she shirks nothing and doesn't shy way from emotional extremes or vocal challenges. As an actress and interpreter she is more consistently successful than as vocalist but she cannot be dismissed as totally provincial or crude. Though a few attempts at delicacy, accuracy and finesse may fail, others will surprise you by succeeding and she scored many points in her acting and singing. The voice is major and imposing and suggests a force of nature. Unlike Papian, she was a fearsome rival and didn't sound like the junior priestess next to Dolora Zajick's majestic Adalgisa.

First of all, she is glorious to behold on stage. She has lost some weight in anticipation of the January "Macbeth" satellite moviecast and the often rather soignée new gowns suited her. Tall and majestic with wide-set flashing eyes, she commanded the stage at all times.

Guleghina is often happiest when she can hurl her voice like steel javelins at the music - preferably in the higher range. Some of these vocal assaults miss the target but the energy and force is always exciting. However as Norma, Guleghina attempted many soft attacks, sustained piano singing and modulated phrasing. This in itself was admirable but years of daredevil oversinging are hard to shake off for one role. These piano phrases - including the opening and ending phrases of "Casta Diva" - suffered from hollow, unsteady tones and fell short of the intended pitch. Whereas Papian was capable of more lyricism and delicacy, Guleghina could sweep you away with passion and terrify you with her rage. The two divas strengths and weaknesses seem to be polar opposites of one another. Neither had pinpoint coloratura control but Guleghina had expressive vocal attack and excitement in her fioritura.

Guleghina's control of her forte top was better than before, none of the many B's and C's turned into a squall though she can sharp. She had good clean attacks on some of the killer high cadenzas which will swoop up to a high note and then spiral downward on a chromatic scale. The downward scale was often smeared and sloppy but the top was responsive including a short but firm high D at the end of the trio climaxing the first act.

Though the first act found Guleghina at times managing the role and thinking through her vocal choices phrase by phrase, the second act showed her in greater command of the role. As the role of Norma goes on the vocal gestures become broader and the phrases grander, better suiting Guleghina's big-boned vocal framework. The scene where Norma ponders murdering her children was a different woman from the proud and almost otherworldly priestess of the first scene - this was a tortured, desperate woman. The maternal aspects of the role were powerfully communicated - the way that she embraced her two boys you knew Guleghina has had children of her own. Maria managed to match Dolora phrase by phrase and staccato scale by staccato scale in "Mira, O Norma".

In the scenes where Norma incites the Gauls to battle showed Guleghina tearing up the stage as the epitome of the warrior diva. The confrontation with Pollione "In mia man alfin tu sei" showed one Norma who was truly in love with Pollione even as her anger turned her against him and eventually against herself. The final scene with the moving "Qual cor tradisti" and "Deh non volerli vittime" plumbed real depths of emotion. Guleghina's Norma was relieved to be able to admit her love and free herself from her lies even at the cost of her life. But then there were her children who were now unprotected. Guleghina's plea to her father could have moved a stone to tears.

Throughout there were pitch problems, phrases broken by inadequate breath control and approximated passage work. But also throughout was a real, larger than life yet very human Norma who was compelling and moving whether alone or interacting with her colleagues. Imperfect? Definitely, but this seemed to be the real thing unlike Papian's often elegant but unconvincing attempt at the role. So though the singing was anything but "casta" in many respects, the "diva" in her human and divine aspects propelled the story. At the end of the night there was blood on the stage but tears too and the fire of Bellini's genius burned brightly. -- Gualtier Maldè

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10 October 2007

Someone else does the heavy lifting for a change

La Cieca introduces a new feature on parterre.com, the guest review. First up to bat is longtime print zine stalwart Little Stevie, who saw Lucia di Lammermoor last night.

Take this as you will: based on this evenings performance the new Met Lucia is pretty bad. The acclaimed Ms. Zimmerman simply doesn't know how to direct opera. The chorus work was among the WORST I have ever seen in any theatre - no motivation, and some of the most boring groupings you can imagine - very static. The highly touted "nuanced portrayals" of the principles translates to "can't get the performances past the footlights". As viewed from Parterre Box 12 tonight, my impression was that the relationships were so poorly realized that everyone was acting in their own opera with no connection happening between any of them. Dessay and Giordani hit the mark in the Act 1 love duet, but prior to and after that the opera turned into an emotional black hole.

As each act came about I could feel the performance slipping away dramatically. This was unfortunate for Ms. Dessay's Mad Scene - which was very well sung, with reinstated pages of music new to my ears, and extremely interesting and difficult coloratura tailored to her abilities. If the opera had actually built up to this scene it would have been an experience to remember. The production lets her down, and the scene is an island in a vast ocean of emptiness. You really must experience Act 3 Sc. 1 between Edgardo and Enrico to believe it. Passionless, limp, "cross the stage on this line" type of directing - no conflict, no danger. It played as thought they were an East Village avant garde opera troupe making fun of the structure of the piece in a deconstructionist production. There was barely enough applause to cover the time to black out and raise the scrim (see below) on Sc. 2.

I have read that Ms. Zimmerman traveled with her designers to Scotland to soak up local color and get inspiration for this production. Well the only thing they seemed to have soaked up are several hundred gallons of sea foam green paint, and not a very stage worthy or pleasant shade either. Based on the designs released prior to opening I was expecting darkly foreboding landscapes, expressionistic backgrounds, gloomy yet appropriate spaces. The grassy mound in Act 1 works, yet I couldn't shake the feeling that it was the anorexic sister of the Met's Parsifal set. Act 2 is a deluge of the aforementioned "sea foam green" - from the floor to way up past our site lines - all three walls of the set.

Act 3 is where it really falls apart. Scene 1: Lightning out of your local carnival's "spooky house" housed in a black scrim that materializes into Wolf's Crag Castle thanks to two cutouts at top and bottom with part of the Scene 2 stairs sticking out. Edgardo enters to a bare stage with your uncle's ugly yellow wing backed chair the only piece on stage. Scene 2 was the most confusing - the costumes, giant wooden stairs and balcony (read faux-finished cat walk) seemed to place the scene in the Wild West and looked to be straight out of Miss Kitty's Saloon from Gunsmoke!! Perhaps up close the impression was richer, but from my seat it sure didn't read as Scotland. The Ravenswoods cemetery was a particular embarrassment - 2 or 3 cutout headstones that looked to be supported in the back by 2x4's. Cheap cheap CHEAP!

The singing was OK. Myers (as Normanno in Act 1 Sc. 1) was inaudible when the ensemble was singing, and weak on solo lines. Relyea was wooly and tended to go flat. Giordani was Giordani - very good but just shy of superstar tenor quality. Kwiecien - I wish I could rave - but he has one dynamic - mezzo forte - a short breath line - and was quite cardboard tonight. He also really sang over Dessay in their scenes together. Stephen Costello projected youth, vigor, and a super fine tenor that has alot of ring top to bottom, though the absolute top didn't quite bloom bigger as one might want - but what a fantastic sound. -- Little Stevie

If you would like to be a guest critic on parterre.com, please contact La Cieca. First priority will be given to regular commenters.

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