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22 September 1998: Once James Levine moves on from his post at the Met, he might make a very attractive guest professor at the world's great musical conservatories. The maestro's once-annual public appearance (to prepare the patrons for the coming season) last week demonstrated that when he warms up to his subject, he can be really quite charming, not to mention informative. He defused the thorny Moses und Aron question (the patrons Don't Want This Opera) by associating it with Pelleas and Wozzeck as "music" operas, unlike text-driven works like Peter Grimes. The very East Side crowd seemed to buy it, which means they might even show up for their subscription performances.

The bombshell was Levine's announcement that he and Cecilia Bartoli ("a mezzo-soprano in name only") were "exploring" the alternate arias written for Susanna in Figaro; perhaps, he said, she might even sing different arias from performance to performance! And when interviewer Matthew Gurewitsch casually noted that Waltraud Meier was scheduled for a return to the Met in 2001 (as Isolde!), the maestro, weighing his words carefully, said "we haven't quite worked that out yet..."

Levine also talked a LOT about Benvenuto Cellini, a show La Cieca really does not know, though she was later informed that the title part would be "ideal" for Richard Leech at the moment -- so let's see what happens. And what would happen, Gurewitsch queried, if Thomas Hampson should cancel Werther? Would the Met seek a baritone? A tenor? Or... "That's easy," Levine answered, "We will find the best singer of the role of Werther available."

Not to complain or anything, but the nibbly bits at the following reception were distinctly meager, and those patrons reacted to the scent of smoked salmon like sharks to blood.

A certain Met baritone has been seen recently offering lots of offstage encouragement to his mezzo colleague in this year's production of Carmen. As a member of the company puts it, "they've been doing at least one runthrough every night." Curious fellow, this baritone: for two seasons running, he's been cast as Escamillo, but he always does Carmen.

That Big Wagner Project Deborah Voigt's fans have all longed for will finally come to pass in 2003 when the diva sings her very first Isolde at the Vienna Staatsoper. According to La Cieca's Vienna sources (I said "sources," not "sausage," silly!) Christian Thielemann will conduct this new production and Thomas Moser will be Tristan. Until then, Voigt fans can look forward to new productions of Ariadne auf Naxos in Chicago and Die Frau ohne Schatten in Berlin. Voigt's only Met appearances this year are as Chrysothemis in Elektra, and her Sieglinde should be one of the few high points in San Francisco's otherwise unpromising Ring cycle. Look for Voigt and Thielemann to team up in New York for Frau in 2001.

Covering La Voigt's Met Elsas last season (and Karita Mattila's this fall) was soprano Christine Goerke, who is best known to New York audiences for her huge personal triumph in the City Opera's Iphigenie en Tauride. She makes her New York recital debut with Craig Rutenberg at Weill Hall in December, then travels to Seattle for Donna Elvira. In the new year, the busy soprano debuts at the Paris Opera as Vitellia, followed by more concerts back in the states.

"I never listen to the opera nor go to it. I can't even sit through my own productions. I can't read music and I'm not interested in the theatre. In fact, my career has been a succession of unsolicited invitations that I have been too weak-willed to resist." So says opera producer Jonathan Miller in an interview in the London Evening Standard. Miller goes on to call certain unnamed opera stars "horrible ... Jurassic Park performers who arrive late like human dinosaurs with shreds of primeval vegetation hanging from their jaws, and just do their own bit....if you perform with Pavarotti, then you attract an audience of the sort that applauds when the curtain goes up, and you know that you have committed a deeply vulgar error." La Cieca feels Dr. Miller's pain deeply. Fortunately, if reports of Miller's recent dull-as-dishwater Zauberfloete from Santa Fe are to be believed, the good doctor may not have to spend much more time slaving away in the salt mines of opera: the audience there HATED his tired, sterile, bloodless and over-intellectualized take on the Mozart. It will only be a matter of time, surely, before those pesky unsolicited invitations will cease to clog Dr. Miller's mailbox. La Cieca knows she can't wait!

The long-awaited "crossover" album by the world's most adorable singer is here at last!

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And meanwhile, here's some joyous (and true!) news for Beverly Sills fans: the legendary and long out-of-print recording of Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe will "definitely" be released this spring, in time for the diva's 70th birthday, says a source close to Polygram. This classic New York City Opera "original cast" recording has never been available on CD: the LP release on DG is a treasured collector's item. Another upcoming Sills release is a 1970 performance of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment for the American Opera Society, so far as La Cieca knows the only existing document of Sills singing this opera in the original French. This Legato Classics performance is the latest in a series of must-have historical live recordings from Legato: their new Tosca starring the very young Leontyne Price (singing in English) is simply a revelation: how fresh and unmannered and dramatic La Price sounds!

La Cieca only wishes she could say the same about Renee Fleming's performance in the now-notorious opening night of La Scala's Lucrezia Borgia from last month. It's a mess. Not a disaster, not filth, but certainly not what one expects from a big dazzling prima at La Scala. Fleming's singing does not seem to resemble what we think of as the bel canto school: more like the sophisticated Strauss stylings of a Schwarzkopf or a Gueden. I don't hear much legato and, frankly, when a singer inflects every single note, I begin to long for a simple clean line. All the familiar mannerisms are in evidence: scooping practically every measure for "expressive" effect, cooing on descending intervals, breathy lower-middle register, and a late-Lee Price "filth" chest voice. Much of the time Fleming sounds like she is oversinging. She attacks the "Era desso..." as if she were at least Ghena Dimitrova, with a phony pumped-up ingollata sound and lumbering tempo; in the faster section she resorts to yuggayugga coloratura, precise but ungraceful. Her trills, however, are cleanly defined and the second-stanza variations are interesting and tasteful. Very strange. As for the audience reaction, well, it's pretty rude, especially toward the end of the show, but it's clear that only a few (perhaps a dozen) were shouting and booing. Fleming receives warm but not ecstatic applause for the "Com'e bello" and a nice hand at the end of the first act and the final curtain. Frankly, La Cieca has heard far worse booing for a number of singers at La Scala, including Caballe, Callas, and Scotto.La Cieca thinks bel canto is not Fleming's strong suit. If this undeniably talented singer would just take a glance at the career of Cheryl Studer, she might get a clue as to what happens to undeniably talented singers who have the mistaken impression they can sing "everything." In Mozart and Strauss, Fleming has few rivals: why not stick to what you do well?

La Cieca had just settled in this evening to listen to Legato Classics delicious new CD of Tosca starring a very young Leontyne Price when the phone rang: it was dear Flora Bervoix, who is summering in the Southwest. Says Flora: "The elegant and distinguished mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt captivated Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival audiences the second week of July with evenings of Berg and Mahler songs. Her vocal and dramatic performance was almost the biggest news of the evening, paling only in comparison to the reports around town of La Hunt's recent engagement to be married to Peter Lieberson, composer of the opera Ashoka's Dream, in which Ms. Hunt starred last season at the Santa Fe Opera. The mezzo told friends she plans to spend more of her time in recitals and concerts, though will continue in selected operatic repertory. Santa Fe Opera, I hear, invited La Hunt to sing Carmen in 1999, but the lady declined."

And here's even more gossip from La Cieca!