{short description of image}questo e quello
July 1998

La Cieca braved the nosebleed area of upper Manhattan (triple digits!) for a concert performance of La forza del destino featuring two long-time friends of parterre box, Ed Rosen (Don Carlo) and Charles Handelman (Melitone). Ed sounded a little nervous, which seemed to result in some tightness of sound in the middle register from time to time during the evening. His Verdian singing is stylish and heartfelt, with generous use of portamento and subito piano effects reminiscent of the great baritones of the 40's and 50's. Now, the surprise: the top of Ed's voice is huge, with a terrific ring, reminding me some of Cornell MacNeil. He took a perfectly acceptable high A in the "Peredea" aria, and a stunning interpolated G-sharp and F-sharp in the cadenza to "Egli e salvo." Though he was tiring a bit toward the end of this very long performance (his role was uncut, I think), Ed gathered his forces for a truly tremendous "FINALMENTE!" in the "Invano, Alvaro" duet -- not, perhaps, as beautiful as Merrill's, but terrifyingly intense -- the "parola scenica" indeed.

As for Charlie, well, he's a genius, that's all. I'm not saying this because he advertises in parterre box (check out his "Live Opera" ad elsewhere in this issue)-- you could put this performance on any professional stage and have NOTHING to be ashamed of. And in most theaters you don't hear such immaculate Italian words floating on the tone, the infinite variations from fully-sung to parlando, or the sense of character even when someone else is singing. Charlie understood that acting Melitone is not about doing gags, it's about being the character, self-important, impatient, and envious. And he really sang so much of the music, not faking it the way most buffos do it. The indication in the score is "baritono brillante," and those words, I think, should be on Charlie's business cards.

As you probably know, Ed and Charlie, when they are not gracing the opera stage, are friendly competitors in the field of live operatic recordings. Recently, courtesy of these two gentlemen, La Cieca enjoyed a double feature of video performances from about a decade ago, featuring three of her best-loved and most electrifying divas.

Legato Classics' 1988 performance of Fedora from the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona stars Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo in the same staging seen last season at the Met. What a difference Scotto's presence makes! An opera that seemed far-fetched and hackneyed when Freni played it crackles with life with La Scotto. From her very first entrance, her whole body vibrating with tension and indignation, Scotto is the headstrong Princess to her fingertips. The look of delighted surprise that lights up her face when she first glimpses Wladimiro's drawing room convinced me instantly that she was deeply and sincerely in love, making all her subsequent plotting seem believable and even sympathetic.

Like all the very greatest actors, Scotto has the ability to make dramatic choices that are completely unpredictable, and yet seemingly inevitable. In Act 2 she reads the letter that convinces her of Vladimiro's betrayal without even so much as as trembling: she is frozen in shock. And then she rips the letter to shread and flings it to the floor, like something dirty and contaminated. And I will not attempt to describe the extended death scene in Act III except to say that Scotto combines the most powerful emotion with the most dignified restraint throughout -- except for one breathtakingly physical coup de theâtre whose surprise I will not spoil for you.

Scotto is in late-period voice, thick-sounding and often wiry, though the middle register remains expressive, especially in piano. For the record, she attempts the phrase rising to high C in Act II, with, I must admit, not much success. She is partnered by a ferociously sexy and startlingly young Domingo (could this really be only 10 years ago?) who seems inspired by the full-blooded performance of his leading lady. This is one of most passionate performances, with a dangerous, almost murderous intensity. And he is in stunning voice, far more powerful and easy than the recent Met revival.

The second half of this divathon was a tape La Cieca obtained from Live Opera about a year ago, an Elektra from the 1991 Orange Festival, starring that titanic twosome of Dame Gwyneth Jones and Leonie Rysanek. This is just what Elektra should be: big-voiced, extravagant, over-the-top, and viscerally committed. These two artists leave blood on the huge outdoor stage. La Jones takes a few minutes to warm up, but soon is in brilliant form, with enormous, spot-on high B's and C. The outdoor venue seems to inspire her to an even more physical performance than usual, climaxing with a frantic climb up a huge hill of earth that covers much of the stage.

Rysanek, in one of her first assumptions of the role of Klytemnestra, plays her not as the usual burnt-out harridan, but rather as an overripe sensualist aristocrat, an edgy Auntie Mame in black chiffon and diamond bangles. The confrontation of these two giants lacks only miniature cutouts of downtown Tokyo: these are Godzilla-sized passions. These two tapes originated in telecast for Spanish and French television (respectively) and are particular attractive because none of the three featured divas ever recorded these roles commercially either for CD or video.

Here's more information on Live Opera.

Read parterre box the way it's MEANT to be read: in magazine form. Issue #32 (which subscribers had in their hands June 24) includes Enzo Bordello's moving opera-queen tribute to Renata Scotto, more secrets of impossible recordings from Ortrud Maxwell, a master class with Bitchy Spice, and the usual rant, reviews and gossip. Get one whole year (six BULGING issues) delivered directly to your own lovely home by sending a check or money order for $20 (or $35 for 2 years) made to James Jorden to

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Thank God for the internet - that's what La Cieca always says to herself, and she's never meant it more than right now. Three tantalizing tidbits just arrived, only minutes after press time, so you'll hear it here first!

  • Diana Soviero will introduce three new roles in Montreal in the next few seasons: the much discussed Gioconda, plus Alice Ford and then Vanessa. Besides those, says the diva, "I've sung all the roles that really interested me."
  • Those of you who are mad with lust for Jose Cura (and I think you know who you are) had better not blink during the tenor's first Met season, or you may just miss him. Cura is scheduled to sing only 2 performances of Turridu in the fall of 1999, and his next Met gig after that is not until 2004!
  • Renata Scotto is showing no signs of slowing down: the diva takes on a new role, Madame Flora in The Medium, for Torino in May. And, wait: she's singing it on a double bill with La Voix Humaine - and directing both shows too! Now, what American opera company will do us all a favor and invite La Scotto over so we can all marvel at this tour de force?

That last breath of musical style, that ultimate remnant of operatic grace, that final shriek of golden-age opera queenery, La Gran Scena Opera Co., took their very first official Lincoln Center bow on June 4, only about ten years post-due. Not to worry: the divas still have the stuff.

After her de rigeur cameo in the traditional "Ride of the Valkyries" opening spot, Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff) swept onto the stage of Alice Tully Hall in a splendid princesse gown of violet silk velvet and proceeded to demonstrate the fine art of the Train Kick as she backed upstage to the piano. True to the opera queen's dictum that "One superb detail is worth a whole pretty-good aria," the diva offered only the first two notes of Verdi's "Pace, pace, mio dio" demonstrating in the process a messa di voce that would make Zinka Milanov puke. Madame then launched into her classic rendition of "Condotta ell'era in ceppi," preceded with a noble (if doomed) attempt to explain the plot of Il trovatore. Like the legendary singing actress whe is, Galupe-Borszkh interpreted this aria not only with her voice but with her face, hands, fingers, and legs. Even her coiffure got into the act: when the she sang of how her hair stood on end with terror, the diva's auburn bouffant inflated of its own accord. Many falsettists would find this aria hard going because of the low tessitura, but Siff spun out the final phrases in a rich mixed-tone evocative of the gypsy hag's torment.

A less haglike gypsy next appeared in the form of svelte Philene Wannelle. Aided by a bevy of cigarette-smoking divettes, the mezzo (Philip Koch) demonstrated her uniquely sensuous interpretation of Bizet's Carmen, with high notes and gams both like butter. Miss Wannelle is indeed a world-class artist, who deserves to be paired with the likes of Domingo or Pavarotti. Apparently, these tenors were busy that night, because La Gran Scena offered Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi (Charles Walker).

Beloved Retired Diva Sylvia Bills (Joe Simmons) played hostess, cracking wise about recent operatic scandales including Cecilia Bartoli's arrest for onstage "mugging" and the addition of Aretha Franklin to the roster of the Three Tenors. Suddenly the bubbly Ms. Bills was reduced to silence when, as she has for the past 15 years, World's Oldest Living Diva Gabriella Tonnoziti Casseruola (Keith Jurosko) tottered up from the auditorium. With a minimum of encouragement, the elderly artist regaled her multi-generational public with an authentic if archaic interpretation of the Love Duet from La boheme. She was assisted, or rather impeded, by Signor Sorta-Pudgi. Jurosko's loving spoof of the aged diva's cracked voice is a favorite of La Gran Scena's longtime fans, and they rewarded him with a sustained ovation.

After that lesson in style, the Aida duet was (perhaps inevitably) a bit of a letdown. Kavatina Turner (Kyle Church Cheseborough) is ideally cast dramatically as an Aida with major attitude, but much of the music lies low for a coloratura soprano. Cheseborough triumphed, though, with Kavatina's high C's, easy, unforced and shimmering. Daniel Rawe as Anne Sophie von Gerbil seemed to miss the point of Amneris. It's not about having a large and beautiful voice (which he certainly does), it's about interpretation, homage and clomping around in platform wedgies. The talented Mr. Rawe is a newcomer to the company; I am sure that with a little seasoning he will soon lurch with the best of them.

Miss Wannelle sauntered back to the stage in befeathered fuschia chiffon to rattle off "Cruda sorte" from L'Italiana in Algeri in her familiar machine-gun manner: No one's Rossini is so well articulated as Philene's, and she offers the bonus of a queen-sized high B in the final cadenza.

All these fine performances were as mere canapes to the main course we now were served, Mme. Galupe-Borszkh's notorious interpretation of Act 2 of Tosca. Ira Siff forgets nothing, which means that Vera's Tosca is a composite of every gimmick, every tic, and every blunder: I can almost believe that there once was a Tosca who spent half the act struggling to get out of her too-tight gloves, or who had to wake Scarpia at the end of her aria.

But Vera delivers a "Vissi d'arte" that for once convinces you that Tosca's singing really would make the stars shine brighter. No one laughs, and, in fact, no one breathes for four long minutes as Vera spins out impossibly sustained fil di voce phrases. Yes, Siff is having a little more trouble getting up to the highest notes these days, and occasionally the middle voice wavers out of tune, but what does that matter? Ira Siff, perhaps better than anyone in the world, knows the heart of Tosca. And why should he not? For two decades now, he has lived for art.

La Cieca's companion for the evening Veggie du Jour (chic in a gold brocade cocktail suit) remarked that the audience seemed a little, well, listless most of the evening. The point struck La Cieca most forcefully when La Galupe-Borszkh pealed out her mid-scene high C as Scarpia's minions dragged Mario off stage. Of cource La Cieca burst into applause, but (can you imagine?) the woman in the row ahead actually SHUSHED me, as if this were Parsifal or something.

La Cieca reserves the right to applaud when the spirit moves her. For example, the few measures of tonic-dominant summing-up at the end of "Sempre libera" really are not up to much as music: the aria is over as soon as Violetta gets off her high A-flat, and La Cieca sees no problem with applause covering those last chords. Now, on the other hand, a clever director and a gifted singing actress can contrive a bit of stage business that will fill out those musically uninteresting bars, therefore postponing the climax. Alfredo might suddenly return to the room and Violetta might throw herself into his arms, for example. Or, in a different interpetation, Violetta might hysterically smash the Champagne glass and fall sobbing onto the chaise longue. In that case, most likely the applause should be held until the dramatic tension has resolved itself.

La Cieca assumes you know the famous 1955 La Scala performance of La sonnambula with Maria Callas, in which her performance of "Ah! non giunge" works the audience into such a fever pitch of enthusiasm that they begin cheering at the end of her chain of trills leading into a high B-flat, drowning out a couple of pages of coda. Believe me, if I were in the theater for a night like that, I would not complain about missing half a minute of music; in fact I might very well take a punch at anyone who shushed me.

Since operatic performance is, after all, meant for a particular audience at a particular time, I think it is important for critics to recognize that audience's reaction in their review -- especially if it is very passionate. The loud ovation bestowed upon Catherine Malfitano at the end of Makropulos Case says something very significant about what the audience is seeking in the theater, especially in contrast to the lukewarm response garnered by some other artists at this venue. And, of course, when a significant portion of the audience boos -- that's news, too.

You know, some of La Cieca's very best friends are lesbians, and that is one reason the old girl just had to attend the Lincoln Center Festival world premiere of Patience & Sarah, a "folk opera" inspired by the cult novel by Isabel Miller. The opera is the work of two New York women, composer Paula M. Kimper and librettist Wende Persons. Patience & Sarah tells a romantic tale of star-crossed lesbian lovers in 19th century America, and the work will no doubt go down in history, if for no other reason than it moved staid old Opera News to use the "L" word right there in the Table of Contents were anyone might see it! La Cieca will offer a full report in issue #33 of parterre box. In the meantime,

CRI offers a tantalizing preview of Patience & Sarah on their new Lesbian American Composers compilation CD (CRI CD 780). Soprano Elaine Valby (Kimper's lover) is joined by soprano Lori Ann Phillips in the love duet "I want to live," which apparently has nothing whatsover to do with Susan Hayward. CRI's Director Jody Dalton points out that this compilation, unlike the earlier Gay American Composers CDs, deals quite directly with issues of gender, sexuality and social justice in a broad variety of contemporary styles from ragtime to performance art to electronics. Other composers represented on the disc include Pauline Oliveros, Linda Montano, Annea Lockwood and Ruth Anderson.

Toward the end of the first intermission at Opera Orchestra of New York's Poliuto (May 4), a sharp-eyed queen spotted Dame Joan Sutherland in a parterre box and shouted out a "Brava!" that roused the Carnegie Hall audience to a warm and vigorous ovation lasting several minutes. The diva accepted the applause with her customary good humor, though I wonder if she really had planned on spending the entire second intermission signing autographs! Then, just as Dame Joan waved goodbye to a persistent few admirers, that same queen, with diction of a clarity that would do Dawn Upshaw proud, called out, "Brava Anna Moffo!" And, yes, there she was, only a few seats away from Dame Joan, looking happy, slim and attractive, her hair restored to its original brunette shade. (La Cieca never cared much for Moffo as a redhead.)

La Cieca has to say those two ovations were the most exciting moments of the evening for her. Otherwise, I did take a lot of pleasure in Eve Queler's long-breathed and singer-friendly tempos; she flexed her muscles impressively in the bombastic grand-opera style Temple of Jove scene, which quite properly brought the house down.

Queler was, frankly, the star of the evening. In the long and demanding title part, Fabio Armiliato substituted volume for musical imagination, reducing the character to a simplistic bellower.As Paolina, a role offering few purely vocal opportunities, Martile Rowland's approach to the score was virtuostic and musical, if lacking in much spontaneity. Her large but cool instrument is sometimes reminiscent of Cristina Deutekom's, with some tightness on top. As Severo, Giovanni Meoni's only exciting moment all night long was an interpolated high G - the rest of the voice sounded like a lyric tenor. This role is a real barnstormer, meant to symbolize implacable Roman might in opposition to Poliuto's pacifism: the light-voiced Mr. Meoni was therefore badly miscast opposite the brassy Mr. Armiliato.

At a swinging soiree last week chez Dawn Fatale, the DJ slipped into the CD player a new single from Aretha Franklin, her now-celebrated interpretation of "Nessun dorma," with which the diva brought down the house at this year's Grammy Awards. In the CD version, Aretha's key is a third higher than what's in the score -- F minor/F major, which is a more familiar tessitura for her, without those very difficult low D's. In whatever key, Ms. Franklin's interpretation of "Nessun dorma" remains entirely in her own distinctive style, treating the melody as raw material for imaginative variation through the use of extreme rubato and ornate melismatic effects.

I love the little chromatic turns and "roulades" she inserts on the repeated word "amor" and the audacious downward portamento from middle B-flat to low F on "e di speranza" that Marilyn Horne might envy. Aretha's version of the climactic "vincero" phrases is if anything more exciting than Puccini's, especially the final repetition, when she adds a whole flurry of coloratura embroidery to the high C. La Cieca will admit that it is absolutely true that Ms. Franklin's Italian diction is embarassingly amateurish. Next time she'll know better than to coach it with Richard Margison.

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