April 1998: Cher public, you may recall that a few weeks ago, a Met insider offered La Cieca a startling estimate of the new Lohengrin. La Cieca had guesstimated the physical production might cost, oh, say, $1.5 million, perhaps as much as $2 million, given the extended rehearsal time demanded by Mr. Wilson. La Cieca was not even close. The "light boxes" built new for this production alone cost $3 million (the special fluorescent tubes used must be hand-blown in a German atelier.) The total cost of the physical production (including rehearsals) is therefore thought to be in the neighborhood of $4.5 million, which would make this by far the most costly Met production ever. (The Zeffirelli Turandot came in at just over $1 million; del Monaco's Forza somewhere around $2 million.) The word from backstage is that post-show reaction from the Met's super-powerful chocolately crunch Board of Directors was "grim." Joe Volpe was reportedly heard muttering, "What went wrong?" After next season's revival, this production is not on the schedule for at least four years, which, La Cieca is told, most likely means it will never be seen again. 

The announcement of the Met's 1998-99 season confirmed La Cieca's report of the firing of Simone Young as a result of her resounding failures at the Met in Les Contes d'Hoffman and Il Trovatore has been bought out of this production, to star the Alagnas. Ms. Young's Met days seemed numbered from the beginning of the Hoffman rehearsals. La Cieca is told that Ms. Young dismissed the singers' requests for minor tempo changes with a sweeping "relax!" Audience members at the final dress rehearsal were shocked to see Richard Leech simply quit singing in the middle of "O dieu de quel ivresse" and throw his hands up in the air. Matters apparently reached a head during the broadcast of Hoffman: a backstage observer reports he saw Patricia Racette (Antonia) storm into her dressing room and slam the door (most uncharacteristic for the even-tempered young soprano); he also noted Pierre Lefebre in tears in the wings. As for the Trovatore - well, La Cieca will get to that in good time. What matters now is, Maestro Young looks to be history! 

For the longest time, that Traviata was listed as "producer TBA." Well, we were crossing through a room filled with Met props and furniture, and we noted an ornate cupid-bedecked mirror. We asked which current production this piece belonged to, and the property mistress answered that it was pulled from storage for Franco Zeffirelli, who is in town looking at his old Traviata sets to see what can be salvaged for a "new" production. That's right: the Met's Zeffirelli Traviata is to be replaced by ... a Zeffirelli Traviata . We were told it was a done deal but for the Zef's signing on the dotted line. 

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La Cieca hopes and prays that what she heard from Denyce Graves at the February 16 the Met's Samson et Dalila) was the result of fatigue, nerves or some sort of mild indipsosition. Her middle voice sounded cloudy and rough, with frequent patches of suspect pitch; what's worse, there apparently was neither top nor bottom to the range. Lowlying phrases like "garde a son retour" in the first act simply disappeared, and the few excursions above the staff (most especially the difficult cry of "Lache!" toward the end of Act Two) emerged as nothing more than hollow screams, like Marta Mödl's notorious high G-sharp in the Salzburg Elektra. What is perhaps more disturbing than vocal unsteadiness (which, as La Cieca said, could be temporary) was the inert quality of her musical and dramatic interpretation, a lack of imagination especially in the use of rhythm. The whole score sounded like a series of disconnected whole notes, only rarely bound into phrases. "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" was pretty much a disaster, with Graves constantly out of synch with the orchestra, running out of breath on several key phrases. Ms. Graves was not, I think, very much "in synch" with her director either: she performed the required strutting, lip-pursing, and arm-vogueing (Pam Grier IS Delilah Jones in Big Trouble in the Valley of Sorek) but she didn't really seem to mean it. Dalila came off sullen, withdrawn, preoccupied, disengaged. Could this be possibly be the director's intention? Samson et Dalila has little enough dramatic action as it is; why, then, would anyone choose to damp down the work's most interesting character?

On the plus side, we did have Placido Domingo doing "his" Samson, which has always been one of his very best roles. Perhaps Domingo identifies with a sensualist hero who, when everything looks darkest, delivers the goods (and a ringing high B-flat). Certainly he was he saving grace of this production, singing and acting with even more than his customary distinction. I cannot say that I saw any trace of "different" business or intention resulting from the direction of Elijah Moshinsky any more than I did when Domingo did his "new" Otello, but that's all to the good. What was excitingly different about this performance was Domingo's strong sense of commitment, really electrifying after his somnambulistic Don Jose earlier this season. What an artist this man is; and how are we ever going to get along without him?

La Cieca still cannot grasp the reasoning behind Sergei Leiferkus' rank as baryton du jour at the Met: the voice is an utter scramble, all noise and rattle, and his French is only occasionally intelligible enough even to be risible. And while I freely admit that the High Priest may well be a big old priss (otherwise, why the Norma Desmond drag?), Mr. Leiferkus still needs major speech therapy for that annoying lisp ("Maudite à jamais sssssssoit la rasssssssse.") He does, however, make a very fetching skinhead daddy, so he was not a total lossssssss. Frankly, I wish Alan Held had taken on the role -- he sang it in Newark in about 1989 opposite Fiorenza Cossotto, and he was superb. As it turned out, he make a powerful, richly sung Abimelich, despite injuries from a fall off that litter thing during rehearsal.

Danger to life and limb provided about the only real excitement in Elijah Moshinsky's new production. For reasons that are to La Cieca completely obscure, Moshinsky insisted on moving the action of the opera from Gaza to some unspecified North African location. The Philistines therefore became an oddly two-tiered civilization of dark-skinned warriors in the service of high yellow soloists. The muscular supers were quite a visual treat, especially at the moments when they lined up at the curtain line and shook their bulked-up booties at the audience. So dazzling an effect suggests to La Cieca that Mr. Moshinsky is either a brilliant visual stylist or a major dinge queen.

Designer Richard "I don't give a damn" Hudson seized the opportunity to splash the stage with fauviste pastels. In Act One this really did evoke the proper oasis-at-sundown feeling, with placid food-gathering women slowly going about their chores in silhouette: would that the Met's Aida looked this stylish! This scene introduced the first of three drop-dead chic frocks for Ms. Graves, who looked ready to present a Grammy. A really charming Dance of the Flower Maidens (in which the lithe Ms. Graves took an active role) promised a level of chic and cool sensuality that the rest of the production failed to deliver. Eventually La Cieca could not help noticing that Hudson's unit set is not only ass-ugly and cheap-looking but unworkable as well. It's only a rake with a few set pieces, leaving most of the vast stage quite bare. 

Act Two mired down in monotony: it's just an aria and two duets, with little physical or dramatic action, and all Moshinksy could come up with was a LOT of Tina Turner stalking and glaring for La Graves, varied with an occasional command to hit the dirt. She had to sing "Mon coeur" sprawled ungracefully across the prone Mr. Domingo's beefy chest. And are we really to suppose that in the whole Valley of Sorek there is not so much as a blanket to lie on?

La Cieca found the Bacchanale energetic (practically cardiovascular) but not particularly erotic. A feature of the choreography was having the dancers dip their hands in white paint and leave handprints on each others' bodies, an effect that put at least one queen in the audience in mind of Barbara Streisand's nightgown from The Owl and the Pussycat. Not surprisingly, the phallic tower did not so much tumble as detumesce, a spectacularly lame denouement. (What happened to the sensurround earthquake noises and moving stage floor we were promised?)

Leonard Slatkin's conducting emphasized spikily exotic color at the expense of lush sensuality, a twentieth century approach in harmony with Moshinsky's Freudian dramaturgy. Interesting, perhaps, but is it the opera Saint-Saëns wrote?

This production will be revived for the opening night of next season, starring Mr. Domingo. Now, who his leading lady will be remains to be seen, since the tenor and the Met have two different mezzos in mind... 

The latest from Decca's darling: a whole CD devoted to a soprano's acting out of her issues: her conflictual family of origin, lousy self-esteem, thwarted need for parental affirmation, enforced dependency on public transportation . . . and MORE! A full 48 minutes of music. (Yes, there was supposed to be more, but Renee just couldn't find the time to learn the music. I mean, she's just so tired! You know she has those kids who take up so much of her time, and, really, be fair, she's worked so hard this year, and she still has Arabella and Lucrezia Borgia to get ready. But on the next album, she will record the Thais, she promises. Really.)

The delight of concert opera in New York is rather more than the aesthetic pleasure of hearing an unfamiliar score: sufficient patient sniffing may also reveal the presence of that rarest and tastiest of all truffles: a new diva. The archetype for this sort of epiphany is of course Montserrat Caballe's breakthrough Lucrezia Borgia with the American Opera Society, one of the three or four great opera queen moments of the twentieth century. Earlier this season, New York embraced Vesselina Kasarova as a new star after her Tancredi with Opera Orchestra of New York. And just a few weeks ago, La Cieca and others in the know felt the buzz when Sylvie Valayre blew the place down in Verdi's Jerusalem

It was a particularly dazzling night for Mme. Valayre, because the program's Big Name Sam Ramey canceled on only a couple days' notice. But this tall, glamorous French dramatic soprano rose to the occasion with a performance of range, cleanly expressive ornament, depth of color, dramatic thrust, and a fearless assault on written and unwritten high notes all the way of to high D. Valayre's physically engaged performing style is reminiscent of Dame Gwyneth Jones, and, as she warmed up, her middle voice took on a warm, Crespin-like character, at its most sensuous in the Act 2 prison duet. Her only bobble of the evening was a clumsy "Ave Maria", a cruelly exposed piece only minutes into the opera. From the evidence of this concert, she will be a very important interpreter of the Verdian donna di forza roles for years to come, and I would really like to hear what she could do with Norma. She looked striking in long flowing dark hair and a red Grecian-style silk gown -- an outfit I am told she wore to sing Abigaille at Covent Garden when she protested the company's costumes!

Keith Ilika-Purdy's powerful voice made a lot of sense as the Cid-like Gaston, a role far longer and heavier than the equivalent Oronte in I Lombardi. (The intercultural romance motif disappears in this revision of the plot.) He is certainly possessed of a mighty high C (or two or three), but his vocal production sounds to me "tight", all one rather steely color. When Mr. Ilika-Purdy learns to relax and let the voice float freely, we will have an important spinto tenor on our hands.

Gary Simpson gallantly subbed for Mr. Ramey; he sang with authority and passable French; Richard Clement stood out among the comprimarii for his sweet, unforced tenor and sensitive shaping of his brief phrases. The chorus sounded rich and noble in their important episodes, and Eve Queler's broad-stroked conducting made this noble grand opera score sound particularly glamorous.

Glimpsed in the center box joining the ovation were Renata Scotto, Tony Randall, Lucine Amara -- and Ira Siff, who related to La Cieca his experience as an auditor in one of La Scotto's recent master classes: "She's doing my act!" he cried.

A very different French opera brightened a gloomy midwinter evening at Alice Tully Hall with the familiar but always potent combination of Offenbach, Angelina Reaux and L'opera Francais de New York. Barbe-bleu has to be the most skittish opera ever written: even the ballads skip and hop, and the patter songs border on the manic.

Ms. Reaux excelled in the broad-comedy aspects of Boulotte, Bluebeard's hoydenish sixth wife. She is truly the Callas of the pratfall and her timing is Mermanesque in its precision. La Cieca will admit that the diva's vocalism on this evening was a bit effortful, with far more use of open chest voice than Offenbach could have intended. But perhaps La Cieca should keep in mind that this is not Mozart, after all: Réaux put on a great show as this Annie Oakley of the boulevards. Maybe she was "inspired" by the very strong and utterly zany "supporting" cast. Hugues Saint-Gelais in the tricky and high-lying title role struck the proper balance between Simoneau and Chevalier, batting out high B-flats while hoofing, and Michael Sokol as the alchemist stopped the show with his "eccentric" dance number in the second act. Joy Hermalin as the nymphomanical Queen (isn't there always one of those in an operetta?) put close to three octaves worth of first-class voice to the service of farce in her one show-stopping number, and Marc Molomot expertly camped her doofus consort. Jeffrey Lentz and Lisa Catherine Mandelhorn were the buff but small-voiced juvenile couple. La Cieca thinks she needs hardly remind you that Yves Abel conducts this sort of music with the ease and insouciance of a Sunday-afternoon promendace down the Champs-Elysées. Christopher Alden's staging could hardly be called "semi," so busily detailed was it. I still have not quite understood why his work for this company is so invariably pleasing while his efforts elsewhere remain a very mixed bag. On to La Grande Duchesse, please!

We all get older, even Richard Leech. That silky-sweet "peachfuzz" sound of Leech's City Opera years is pretty much rubbed off the voice, but the tradeoff is a sizable instrument with an interestingly muscular middle range. The only time during Les Contes d'Hoffman I found him at all out of sorts was in "O dieu de quel ivresse.." which he had to fight with a bit, though the high-lying climax just rang out with a really nice ping. He had voice to spare for a solid high B- flat at the end of the epilogue "Kleinzach" verse, and he coped admirably with that "You'll Never Walk Alone" chorale ending (which at NYCO I seem to remember as a quartet with Stella and Lindorf as well as the Muse.) He is an enormously sympathetic and even athletic Hoffman -- a good guy caught in a bad situation, instead of an psychological basket case waiting to happen a la Shicoff. 

All this "drag-and-drop" musicology (based more or less on that disproved Oeser edition) really must stop: Hoffman does not need to be 4 hours long.

My only quibble with Natalie Dessay's performance was that she just did a little TOO much physically: the joke is in the music, really, and I felt like a lot of the audience did not completely grasp the difficulty and the wit of her singing, so busy were they guffawing at her acrobatics. But this diva's Zerbinetta earlier this season showed that she will continue to experiment even after the show opens, so maybe she'll edit out a bit of the business. The sustained high G was dazzling, folks.

La Cieca really likes Patricia Racette: so womanly and the voice is placed perfectly. If she does not sing perfectly in tune all the time, that is a minor consideration. Hearing her sing is like seeing a beautiful picture with all the old dirty varnish stripped off. Violetta and Manon, please...

Jennifer Larmore just makes no sense as Giulietta. She's quite pretty, it's true, but just too girlish and clean-cut: in her pink Empire frock she looked like Shirley Temple doing Tosca. I felt she oversang most of the time in an attempt to produce a "big" sound. In fact, she sounds almost exactly like Suzanne Mentzer, which made the Barcarolle a little, uh, monochrome.

James Morris didn't bother me all that much. Hoffman provides perhaps his best acting role (or roles), and most of the music is declamatory enough to sound right in his barky voice. The Diamond Aria, alas, does not -- and he rushed through it as fast as he could. This piece is too low for him these days, except of course for the high note, which is too high.

I still marvel at how tatty the Met orchestra sounds when Young leads. She made no glaring errors, but even at her most competent she seems unable to create poetry or excitement with the greatest opera orchestra in the world. Is it not part of the conductor's duty to instill and encourage a sense of style in the performers? Dr. Repertoire reports: "I have some experience at coaching and directing singers. I know tense, frustrated artists when I see them, and that's what I saw in Hoffman. Leech's glances into the pit even (momentarily) took on an annoyed quality; at one point in the Trio (the cadenza just before the reprise of the Mother's melody) Racette and Young parted company, and the soprano just crumpled for a moment, her body-language suggesting a crestfallen "God knows I've tried." That the entire performance did not completely derail into a trainwreck is a testament to the singers' musicality; it is not entirely their fault if they had little energy left over for interpretive detail. Yes, for a recording, I would demand closer attention to accurate detail and certainly more nuance. But, then, for a recording, the singers might have the luxury of working with a real conductor."

Deborah Voigt's loyal New York fans savored yet another triumph for their favorite soprano when she starred in an excellent concert performance of Strauss's Die Aegyptische Helena presented by the American Symphony Orchestra. For La Cieca, the highlight of Voigt's radiant performance was not so much the "Zweite Brautnacht", which I thought conductor Leon Botstein took a trifle too fast for Voigt's voice to "speak" properly on every phrase, but rather her sumptuous performance of the two iterations of "Bei jener Nacht." Such easy, full-toned, and energized tone! Such crisp and eloquent diction! Such feminine and warm presence! Such golden high notes! And above all, such joy in performance! All I found lacking in the interpretation was some of Helen's sense of ironic fun - - the secret self-contained diva smile that comes from absolute reposeful confidence. But, hey, this is her first try at this glorious part, and it is only fair that she should be allowed a little time to grow into it.

Peter Coleman-Wright's baritone was glamorous and dashing as the barbaric Altair, particularly in the dramatic and rhythmically complex "Bald dir der vertraute", which sounded very high in tessitura as well. (NO problem, though, for Mr. Coleman-Wright.) And Jennifer Welch really shone as the First Serving Maid, a long and tricky supporting role. Ms. Welch is a real Strauss lyric soprano, perfect for Sophie, and I look forward to hearing more from this tall, pretty young lady.

Aithra is a very difficult part: as long as Helena and not nearly so grateful. I found Helen Field's voice rather nondescript and rattly in this part, though she sang with attack and spirit. She did do very well on the final stratospheric pages of this role, so maybe we should blame her mediocre first act on nerves or just a cold voice. Paul Frey coped reasonably well with Menelas, a role as difficult as Bacchus and twice as long. I don't hold a couple of flubbed high Cs against him. Wendy Hoffman sounded appropriately abyssal as the megaphoned Seashell.

I had my doubts about Leon Botstein before this performance based on his highfalutin writings, but I am happy to say he is a far better conductor than essayist. Yes, the orchestra was too loud some of the time, but balance with voices is notoriously a problem in Avery Fisher Hall. I liked his vigorous, almost savage way with the exotic rhythms of the second act, and the first was just yummy with rich orchestral tone.

An essay in the program book suggests that Helena loses little in concert performance. I have to disagree. To begin with, Helena's personal appearance is a major plot point. I love the moment when she glances in a mirror and exclaims, "Wer totet Helena, wenn er sie ansieht!" ["Who could ever kill Helena if he took a look at her first?"]) Further, the "plot" of the opera is mostly internal and therefore conveyed through subtle gesture and eye contact, not so easy to do with scores and music stands. A staged production of Helena would have to be the last word in chic and sophistication, both in design and performance, so I don't think we'll see one soon. But this concert performance was certainly satisfying on its own terms.

The audience for the first night of Trovatore at the Met were doing the zen thing -- you know, the sound of one hand clapping. This listless response was just what the show deserved: pure routine, with two exceptions: Dolora Zajick, who was in superb vocal form, and June Anderson, who was ... uh ... not.

I do like Zajick, but I am not as crazy about her as some. Of course the voice is about the greatest in the world today, and she has a superb technique, excellent musical taste, and a subtle grasp of Verdian style. My only carp is that the whole performance is in the voice, and even that sounds a bit, well, studied, not quite directly from the heart. All I miss in her is a sense of that quality so necessary to a true diva -- dementia. Some roles don't need it, but Azucena certainly does. Having said that, I'll join the rest of the Zajick fans in delighting in her strong points, which are (as I noted before) many and wonderful. She is a singer with "enough" and then some. Now, I just want her to take more chances.

Simone Young put together an edition of the opera that included a couple of snippets of the Manrico/Azucena duet that are usually cut (no big loss), and gave Manrico two verses of "Di quella pira" -- which therefore sounded about 8 times as long, what with Young's plodding tempo and Richard Margison's square delivery. For the first time in my life I heard Act 2 end as Verdi wrote it, with Manrico allowing Leonora to sing "Sei tu dal ciel disceso o in cielo son io con te" as a solo. This phrase is meant to bloom like a flower as the soprano voice gradually ascends: unfortunately, Anderson's leaps to high G and B-flat curdled horribly, well below the pitch. 

Anderson cultivates an "instrumental" tone -- and that instrument is obviously a theramin. She now has three notes in her voice that have the correct intonation, and all of them are above high C. She is beyond being clueless about Verdi style, and her acting looked sort of like Jeanette MacDonald without balls. And don't forget the trademark June Anderson pink cotton-candy coiffure -- so Spanish, don't you think?

Juan Pons has (or had) the right size and weight of voice for di Luna, but tonight he sounded tired and scratchy, fighting to sustain the high notes. Richard Margison sounded fresh, if unattractive of tone -- something about his voice reminds me of James McCracken, that sort of boxy sound. Except, of course, McCracken had a big voice, which no one could say about Margison. The high notes (including the C's) were reliable, but, like everything else about Margison, they were boring. His Italian diction would shame any sophomore college voice student.

Under Ms. Young's "leadership", the whole night was an unnerving game of "are you going ahead, or am I waiting for you?" As for me, I got tired of waiting and walked out after the Leonora-Di Luna duet. I realized the only reason I was hanging around was to boo Young and Anderson, and I'm sure there were plenty of others in the audience who took care of that duty for me.

When La Cieca returned to her "bianca cameretta" she found waiting for her an email message that left her stunned and amazed. It seems (so my correspondent claims) that this Trovatore revival actually began life as Norma - the long-awaited shared production with Chicago Lyric. Anderson sang the role there last season, to middling response, having already canceled her Met appearances. (She only went through with the Chicago performances at the behest of Ardis Krainik - granting her last wish, as it were.) According to this account, the Met first tried to replace Anderson, but Vaness and Eaglen both were "unavailable." So they insisted Anderson honor her contract, dangling Pavarotti's Manrico before her nose to persuade her. And then Luciano changed his mind, with the results you have just seen. (The real artistic tragedy here is the loss of Zajick's first local Adalgisa. As for Norma, La Cieca has heard no rumor of a Met revival before 2005 or so.)

"Alive" is exactly the word for the London video of SALOME, conducted (superbly) by Christoph von Dohnanyi, directed (fabulously) by Luc Bondy, and starring Catherine Malfitano, Bryn Terfel, Anja Silja and Kenneth Riegel, a quartet to rival my "dream cast" of Claire Danes, Keanu Reeves, Christine Baranski and Harvey Keitel.

I am delighted to say that Mr. Bondy has created an exciting and different production without breaking a single one of Dr. Rep's Rules. No, I don't agree with every one of Bondy's choices: he makes the Page a girl, which smudges a layer of gay text; more importantly, Mr. Terfel is asked to behave wild and manic, perhaps *too* manic to share a stage with Ms. Malfitano. But in general Bondy's ideas seem firmly based in the text and the music. He has an antimythic, sometimes even comic take on the opera, defining Salome as a willful brat caught between a blustering doofus of a stepfather and a bitter ex-beauty queen of a mother. Jokanaan is madder than Salome, twitching and speaking to himself, not the usual holy man.

The set is apparently a disused wing of some 19th century mansion, a place that has fallen victim to earthquake or really massive neglect. Only a glimpse of the moon is visible through a French window. Costumes are simple and "Star Trek" timeless, with Malfitano in veil-like scarves and finally a black knit T-shirt, Riegel in vaguely Japanese lounging clothes, Silja in a '40s cocktail frock that looks like something Gale Sondergaard might wear, and Terfel in what appears to be a stained bedsheet. 

The dramatic high point of the opera is the scene where Herod tries to persuade Salome to ask for something besides the head of the prophet: they sit at a kitchen table and squabble while Silja lurches around gulping champagne a la Joanna Lumley. Particularly striking is Ms. Maltifano's constant acrobatic movement trailing yards of silken fabric. Her dance (by Lucinda Childs) is very much "after" Martha Graham and suits both the leading lady and her concept of the character as a knowing and cruel child. (I noted that Malfitano recycled many of Bondy's ideas in her Met performances of this role a couple of seasons ago.)

The soprano tires about midway through the final scene and her voice loses some of the surprising power and sheen it boasted earlier in the opera. She makes it to the end, though, and her intense dramatic involvement more than makes up for a few wobbly or flat high notes. Terfel tends to oversing (even when he is in the cistern and miked) but the voice sounds huge and thrilling, wonderful for the Strauss style. Riegel's yelling and shrieking is at least consistent throughout the performance (unlike his embarrassing showing at the Met), and the ruins of Silja's voice are perfect raw material for her imaginative portrait of the ghoulishly chic Herodias.

The Royal Opera House orchestra sounds gorgeous, and the supporting singers are all fine-to-passable, though Ruby Philogene (the Page) sings far too much of the music in a tasteless belted chest voice.

On the recommendation of the estimable Enzo Bordello I obtained the Legato video of La Fanciulla del West (#1501) with Antonietta Stella, supported by Limarilli and Colzani et al. I am now in the middle of the second act, just before the poker scene, and, my God, this is one of the three or four greatest operatic performances I have ever seen. Stella is simply magnificent, as great in her own way as Callas or Scotto or Jones at their very best. The voice is amazing, as warm and Italianate as Tebaldi's, but with a distinctive veristic "bite" and an absolutely secure top. The high Bb's, B's and even the Cs are not only perfectly secure but thrillingly ringy. And Stella is an incomparable actress, combining perfect sincerity with authentically presentation operatic style. Now, La Cieca will remind you that mise-en-scene is not this videos' strong point. Think '50s Bus and Truck Annie Get your Gun and you're pretty close. The tenor looks eerily like a young Ed Asner, all glowering eyebrows and pattern baldness. Stella does the fringed bolero thing, and adorable little shorty cowgirl boots with cuban heels. The video (a live stage performance from 1963) is in black and white, with approximately the picture quality of an old Honeymooners episode, and the sound is excellent broadcast quality.

GALA's new "1965 Paris Norma" turns out to be an odd sort of compilation, just the Callas bits of three of her final performances. As far as I can make out from the not-very-helpful program notes, we have:

May 17: Act One, Scene 2 from Adalgisa's entrance to the end of the Act, with Giulietta Simonato and Gianfranco Ceccele.

May 21: The same music (beginning earlier, with Norma's scene with Clotilde), plus the final scene from Norma's entrance ("E tornera, si...") until the tape runs out early in "Quel cor tradisti". This performance substitutes Fiorenza Cossotto for Simionato.

May 29: The Act One scene above, plus the "Casta Diva" scena, and the opening of Act Two, through "Mira o Norma". Also with Cossotto. The final scene was not given that night, since after the "Mira o Norma", Callas fainted in her dressing room while attempting to change costumes and "could not be revived."

The sound is very rough, with a lot of (pirate) microphone- rattling and almost total distortion when the full orchestra plays fortissimo. There is also a very chatty reine de l'opera only inches from the mike: his squeals of "oh, la, la!" are much louder than the Callas performance.

Callas is in decent voice (for 1965, anyway) for the 17th, with the top relatively secure; on the 19th she's very good indeed, except for the high notes, which are screams; and on the 19th she's in dreadful shape, missing entrances and squawking all over the place. One can, as reported, hear Cossotto (in superb voice) singing Callas into the ground, even taking a high C that Callas omits. Not a nice woman. Even at the last performance, when she is obviously very weak, Callas spins out an occasional soft phrase with that wonderful sense of "rightness" and repose that only the very greatest artists can accomplish. The key word here, though is, "occasional" -- much of Callas's singing is labored and out-of-tune, and you really have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. If you're curious about Callas's vocal decline, and how variable she could be toward the end, these CDs will interest you. But for a real performance of Norma, go to the same label's 1955 La Scala aircheck. (GALA GL 100.551)

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