March 21: Words to live by: “I never try an F in public. I sometimes do it in the shower, but there I may just be intoxicated by the soap.” — Leontyne Price, 1961. 

March 20: It’s confirmed: the Met’s Web site lists Emily Pulley and Marcus Haddock as the leads in next week’s Faust performances, jumping in for the departed Alagnas (see below for more details).

March 19: La Cieca is the first to admit she has not been batting 1,000 with her predictions about the Alagnas recently. You may recall reading here, for example, that Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu a) were in the midst of a messy divorce, and b) would not show up in New York for their Met performances of Faust. Well, La Cieca was more than glad to be wrong on both those forecasts. The Love Couple did show up — together — and they won a resounding success in the Gounod warhorse.

Anyway, here La Cieca goes out on a limb again. I heard today from not one but three very reliable sources that the Love Couple jetted out of New York early this morning “because of the impending war” — despite the fact that they are still scheduled for two remaining performances of Faust, including a broadcast March 29. Their immediate return to these shores is “not bloody likely,” sighs our source.

March 8: A flurry of activity at La Belle Epoque in the month of April. First, of course, comes parterre productions’ Madama Butterfly on April 2, then, beginning April 23, Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh launches her Second Annual Comeback. The diva took a moment from her busy rehearsal schedule for Die Fledermaus in Utah(!) to drop a few tantalizing hints about her repertoire for this not-to-miss event. She promises arias from Tannhaeuser and Werther, song literature by Straus, Schubert and Poulenc, plus well a Broadway-themed “crossover” venture. Classic scenes from Dido and Aeneas and La gioconda round out the program, to be accompanied by Maestro Sergio Zawa. Further performances will be on April 30 and May 7. Tickets may be charged on major credit cards; call 212-254-6436 for reservations.

March 4: Sad news from Italy: the great mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri died today after a short illness. She was 83. From her debut in 1940 (Fidalma in Il matrimonio segreto), this legendary artist enjoyed a career of over 40 years, finishing in the 1980s in cameo roles such as Giovanna in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of Rigoletto. La Barbieri was most recently seen in New York just last November, when she undertook with her customary vigor a master class for young singers, and won a prolonged ovation for her appearance at the Licia Albanese Foundation Gala.

La Cieca is delighted to announce that that tenor Brian Frutiger has joined the cast of parterre productions’ Madama Butterfly in the role of Goro. Mr. Futiger has previously sung this role with Opera Memphis and his other credits include Santa Fe Opera, Connecticut Opera, Sarasota Opera and Opera Festival of New Jersey. This production of will mark Mr. Frutiger’s New York City operatic debut. The production of the Puccini tearjerker is April 2: more details.

February 13: The Alberto Vilar “Justify My Name” tour continues. Musical America reports that the gazillionaire heterosexual opera queen is “blasting” the media again, for the usual reasons, i.e., he don’t get no respect. He goes on (and on, and on…) to defend his alleged “renegeing” on his pledges. (After all, why should the president of a financial services corporation be expected to understand such artsy trivia as multi-year budget planning?) Vilar augurs a number of gloomy predictions about the future of performing arts philanthropy, very Cassandra-like in tone. In fact, some of his wilder ravings would not be out of place in the first half of Les Troyens.

In fact, La Cieca can almost hear him now, singing, “Les checks ont disparu…”

La Cieca finds it a little disturbing that so many of the reactions to Renee Fleming’s performance in last week’s Met Pirata broadcast are based not on her actual performance but rather to the perception that singing Imogene is some sort of charitable good work on the soprano’s part, like volunteering to read to blind children or something. I don’t think any singer deserves any particular “gratitude” for being paid a theater’s top fee to sing what is essentially a vehicle role, and a very grateful one at that. It’s not so hard to swallow medicine, after all, if the cough syrup tastes exactly like creme brulee.

What I do think Fleming deserves some credit for is the obvious hard work she put into the musical side of this performance, in particular what sounds like a good deal of rethinking and simplification of her stylistic and vocal approach. I will venture that I still don’t believe that Fleming quite understands the big picture in singing Bellini (i.e., the art of thinking in “paragraphs” instead of isolated phrases), but on the other hand, she does have the sense to realize that all that gulping, cooing and sighing is counter-productive in this literature.

Cleaning out all that “interpretative” muck pays rich dividends, too: note, for example, the attack on the high A in “genitor in the slow section of the Mad Scene. In the Paris concert and in the fall performances at the Met, Fleming tended to sing that note “dead,” just a hair flat and without vibrato — presumably because she was trying for some arcane coloristic effect on that top note. Yesterday, she just sang it honestly, cleanly on the voice, and the effect was really enchanting, just what one wants to hear at this point.

That said, La Cieca must observe that this role is really not Fleming’s cup of tea: the tessitura is constantly in the middle register, which in the theater is a relatively dull part of Fleming’s voice. It struck me in hearing the performance (in the house) yesterday, that Imogene is at least as big a sing as Leonora in Trovatore. It just wants a voice with more sound in the middle, more range of color between F and F. I have no doubt the performance sounded enchanting on the radio; from my vantage point, though, Fleming sounded small-scale and, for long stretches, quite bland and unvaried. I will also say that she might consider that even the most ravishing effects (e.g., the diminuendo on long-held notes in the G, A-flat area) begin to sound predictable and mannered when they are repeated too often.

La Cieca thought Marcello Giordani gave a far more exciting performance than Ms. Fleming: his voice is not huge but, my, does it ever have ping! The placement of his first aria is clumsy and I think it’s not the most congenial tessitura for him. If he keeps this opera in his repertoire, he might consider taking the first scena down a half-step to A major. (The high D’s are not the problem — they sound spectacular — it’s just how the tessitura sits on the upper side of the passaggio.) While there were some odd bits of uncertain intonation here and there especially in the first evening, Giordani particular triumphed in the duet and trio, the voice brilliant and the style virile and thrilling.

Dwayne Croft makes no sense for me in a high baritone role like Ernesto: even the long-held high F at the end of his cavatina sounded dark and wooly in the theater.

The production has to be about the worst thing I have ever seen at the Met. John Conklin’s sets look like they were mail-ordered from that antique shop in Las Vegas where Michael Jackson does his collecting, and it’s ludicrous to have five-minute scene changes that amount to nothing more than setting a couple of free-standing balustrades and a park bench. The visual effect suggested a regional opera Otello of the early 1970s.
John Copley’s instant-opera “direction” made Desire Defrere look like Walter Felsenstein. This is the sort of production team that should be booed, and I mean loudly, with bunches of radishes thrown in for good measure.

February 4: La Cieca hears that Marthe Keller will direct the Met’s new production of Don Giovanni in the spring of 2004, replacing an ousted Dieter Dorn. Recently, Dorn and the Met’s artistic staff took a meeting to discuss Konzept, and the New York side of the table decided the set design was just too minimal. (Maybe he should have put a great big rock in the middle of it?) Ms. Keller’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor at Washington Opera last year won kudos for its eerily poetic quality; here’s hoping she works similar miracles with the Mozart masterwork here in Gotham.

La Cieca’s web radio show is back on the air, with a classic collection of opera, both live and on rare studio recordings. Current rep includes Norma, La traviata, Fidelio, Die Walkuere, L’assedio di Corinto and Jenufa. Just go to La Cieca’s Opera House to listen. (For more details on the performances and casting, check out the playlist.

Anthony Tommasini’s take on last week’s booing incident at the Met (an event covered in some detail here) turns out to be not only prissy, namby-pamby pap (that much is to be expected), but lousy reporting to boot. Now, I ask you, gentle reader, if La Cieca can get an interview with the real principal in this controversy (i.e., the one who did the booing), you’re telling me the New York Times can’t?

Ever since Tommasini got his ass kicked for parroting Jonathan Miller’s self-serving whine about Cecilia Bartoli, the Times scribbler has learned his lesson and now dutifully acts as a mouthpiece for the Met’s executive office. It now appears, then, that the official position of the Times is now as follows: make a peep during a performance at the Met, and you are subject to being thrown out on the street by Volpe’s thick-necked goon squad.

Apparently the Met, for all those not-for-profit airs it puts on, is in fact a sort of private country club, and people who are “not our kind, dear” are simply not welcome. (No wonder the barn is so empty.) But even a country club is supposed to be fun, and that’s what Tommasini is most afraid of — after all opera is supposed to be good for you!

The reason “you have to admire such opera crazoids” is simple, Mr. Tommasini: we “crazoids” actually love opera, instead of regarding it as a sort of aesthetic suppository.

January 25: “This is a hell of a way to end this beautiful career of yours” — will these go down in history as famous second-to-last words? You all recognize that quotation of course as Joe Volpe’s disgusted farewell to Luciano Pavarotti on the occasion of the tenor’s cancellation of his alleged Met farewell. Ah, but never say never: La Cieca’s spy tells her that the Met is wooing the Pav for at least one Tosca performance in the summer of 2003. Our suggestion is to claim your place in Central Park now for this event (or non-event, as the case may be…)

January 23: You all know about that frenetic fireplug of a diva. She’s so charismatic that some of her fans treat her like she’s the patron saint of music, but those in the biz know she’s not exactly the easiest artist to handle. Her manager’s attitude has always been, well, pragmatic — for 10% of the megabucks she’s earned, you’d be willing to jump through hoops too! So, one day last week, Signorina Diva takes a meeting with Mr. Manager and daintily drops a bombshell: she’s suffering from “exhaustion,” she says, and needs to take a year off to rest. Would he pretty please cancel all those pesky contracts?

Mr. Manager spends a long couple of days canceling, canceling, canceling. But what do you know? Suddenly, Mr. Manager discovers that Signorina Diva has meanwhile contacted all the presenters herself to renegotiate all the bookings, this time cutting Mr. Manager out entirely!

Fortunately for Mr. Manager, he’s got another young diva on deck, same voice type as Mademoiselle Money, and (so we’re told) a real angel to deal with besides. So now he’s gearing up to give Miss New Thing the big buildup — but meanwhile he’ll hedge his bets by keeping Miss Difficult on the roster, if only for the sake of “prestige.”

Sources close to the Met hint a return of Aprile Millo to the opera house in the next couple of seasons, with Tosca and Forza at the top of the list of possible repertoire. In the meantime, Ms. Millo is joined by Francisco Casanova and assisting artists for an all-Verdi evening at intimate Weill Recital Hall on January 30, 2003. The concert is a benefit for the American Institute for Verdi Studies and tickets are priced $25 to $150. For more information please telephone 914-699-2020, extension 126.

January 22: Opera fans are still buzzing about the controversial prima of Die Entf?hrung aus dem Serail at the Met on Monday night, when soprano Alexandra Deshorties was booed after two of her arias. La Cieca spoke earlier today with the “booer” (whom we will call “Tito” ? not his real name) as well as an old friend of parterre box who witnessed the brouhaha.

“A lot has been said about that evening that is simply not true,” Tito told me, “and I want to set the record straight. I am not a thug, and I am not an ex-boyfriend of Ms. Deshorties, as someone suggested. And I was not in Standing Room. I bought a center orchestra seat outside the Met, in the Plaza, just before the performance.”

Our witness describes the series of events: “It was a poorly attended performance; even with papering probably 30% of the orchestra section was empty. Following Konstanze’s first aria, ‘Ach, ich liebte,’ there was tepid applause and one loud boo. Then, in the second act, there was no boo following the less demanding ‘Traurigkeit’ aria, which I took to mean that the protest was discretionary, or in other words that whoever was booing had taste.”

Then, after “Martern aller Arten,” Tito booed again. According to Tito, at that point, another audience member nearby shouted “brava” as if in response, and Tito countered with another boo.

“At no time did I interrupt the music,” Tito told me. “However, a man in the row ahead of me turned around and said he would punch me in the nose if I booed again!”

Tito returned to his seat before the third act where, he says, he was greeted by a number of “goons in tuxedoes -? and I mean these were big men, like bouncers at a club. They asked to see my ticket, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it ?- I must have misplaced my program in the Patrons’ Lounge during the intermission. These men told me I would have to leave, but I told them they had nothing to worry about since Konstanze has no aria in the third act anyway. They told me that if I didn’t like the performance, I should just leave, which was silly, because I wanted very much to hear Kurt Moll’s Osmin, one of his most famous roles.”

A shout of “I thought this was a free country!” rang out above the tumult in the auditorium as Tito was escorted away. Tito tells us he was appalled by what he described as the “tacky” behavior by the Met’s security people, one of whom reportedly snarled, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out” as he gave Tito the bum’s rush.

Our witness, who stayed for the remainder of the performance, insists, “The booing was certainly no more obtrusive than the mindless applause for the sets heard every night at the Met -? or the ill-timed shouts of ‘brava’ that interrupt many a pianissimo postlude to an aria.”

Tito adds, “I have been to many great opera houses and there is booing in those theaters all the time. Opera is not a church! There is no ban on loud applause or bravoing at the Met. Do we have freedom only to express approval of the performance, but not disapproval?”

January 20: Future for the Love Couple? Who knows? Maybe La Cieca was wrong about their putative breakup: last Sunday night in LA, Angela Gheorghiu, looking glamorous as usual, was in the theater to cheer on hubby Roberto Alagna at a gala concert there — and to be photographed at his side. Or maybe the couple, who have a recording of Carmen due to launch early this spring, are simply doing damage control. (An photo of the pair in this month’s Gramophone is captioned “A Future Together,” which could mean just about anything!) Well, stay tuned for Faust at the Met, now less than two months away!

January 16:La Cieca hears that suave Denis Sedov’s recent string of Met cancellations has nothing to do with (rumored) lack of musical preparation. According to our source, the basso is suffering from a really trying bout of acid reflux. Fortunately the Met had the excellent Richard Bernstein ready to step up to the plate as Leporello earlier this month. Sedov’s cancelled Masettos will be taken by Patrick Carfizzi.

So, La Cieca finally made it to Baz Luhrmann Broadway Boheme last night and she had a lovely time. If you’re looking for truly radical rethought take on the Puccini chestnut, that’s not what this is, but rather a playful but honest production with a partiular emphasis on the sweetness and fragility of the Bohemians. Among the singers the real standout was Daniel Webb, a roly-poly baby bass who sings Colline with a lovely legato and really relishes the Italian words. Barihunky Mark Womack sounded as adorable as he looked in the role of Marcello, and Chloe Wright radiated chic as a Dior-draped Musetta.

Lisa Hopkins got off to a bit of a slow start as Mimi but the voice warmed up nicely for the second half (acts three and four are played together). While she’s definitely on the light side for a big-house Mimi, this is a voice I would very much like to hear as Lauretta, Liu or Micaela. The Rodolfo in this performance, Peter Lockyer is, I assume, a swing, and so maybe that accounts for the nervous flutter in his operetta-weight tenor. He does possess a shy charm on stage. And what do you know, La Cieca’s old buddy Douglas Martin was maestro for the performance, urging the pit band to a brisk and mercurial reading.

January 6: Those of you who have been fretting over the financial fortunes of Alberto “Down to His Last Ten Billion” Vilar will be encouraged to hear that the philanthropist has scraped up enough cash to pay for a three-page color advertisement in Editor and Publisher magazine. In article called “Memo to the Media,” Vilar holds forth on his theories of fundraising for the arts.

You will not be surprised to hear that Vilar harps at some length the concept of “naming gifts,” which is his polite way of saying, “I give you money, you chisel my name all over your opera house.” He scoffs at the idea that such bequests are merely “ego trips,” insisting, “This completely overlooks the fact that arts fundraising campaigns, which must solicit naming gifts, have only one currency to trade: naming recognition. The arts institution wants to attract a well-recognized donor. This gives credibility to the institution and establishes a public competitive edge.” La Cieca heaved a sigh of relief reading that, since she has long been wondering when such Johnny-come-latelys as the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Kirov Ballet, La Scala and Columbia University would ever gain “credibility” and a “competitive edge.”

Now, do you think you can possibly guess whom Vilar identifies as the real villain in arts funding? (Hint: it’s not tycoons who don’t deliver on their pledges!) Why, it’s the media, silly: “… it seems to me that reporters go out of the way to find a negative aspect of what is invariably an upbeat story in the name of a ‘balanced story.’ I would be the first to acknowledge that fairness in journalism is essential. But carried to an extreme, it runs the risk of eroding and knocking off-balance an inherently positive story.”

“The most generous donor ever for the classical performing arts,” as Vilar modestly identifies himself, then proposes a point-by-point set of demands, uh, “suggestions” for any arts organizations eager to suck on his beneficent teat. Prominent among these suggestions: a strong warning that it is their duty to stomp on any story that portrays their pet philanthopist in anything but the most positive light.

Well, maybe the arts organizations will start doing that as soon as you catch up on your back payments on your pledges, Alberto. In the meantime, La Cieca looks forward to meeting you for drinks on the “Your Name Here” Grand Tier.

January 3: Philadelphia fans of David Daniels were heartbroken to hear today that “lingering illness” has forced the countertenor to cancel a “makeup” engagement of his recital tour, scheduled for Sunday afternoon the 5th. But there’s good news too: lustrous soprano Indra Thomas will perform in Daniels’ place, accompanied by David Lofton. Venue for Ms. Thomas’s recital will be The Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. For more information, phone the box office at 215-893-1999.

As La Cieca predicted on December 24, the partnership between Herbert Breslin and Luciano Pavarotti has gone pfffft! According to Ronald Blum’s story for Associated Press, Breslin announced “I’ve had enough” yesterday.

December 31, 2002: La Cieca hears that eternally youthful Catherine Malfitano will celebrate her silver anniversary at the Met in 2004-2005 as Jenny in a revival of Mahagonny. Other Met highlights of that season will include Forza shared between Deborah Voigt and Andrea Gruber and a revival of the notorious Robert Wilson Lohengrin. Latest whispers predict that the Alfano Cyrano de Bergerac, planned as a vehicle for Placido Domingo will likely be scrapped for budget reasons, but 2005-2006 promises a new Romeo et Juliette — perhaps with Anna Netrebko?

December 26: The lumpish PBS television telecast of San Francisco Opera’s Merry Widow could serve as an object example of why intendants like Pamela Rosenberg are so necessary. This bloated and charmless production was the death-rattle of the Lotfi Mansouri school of culinary opera, musical theater for people who hate music and theater.

What’s worse, an SF insider whispers that the so-called “new libretto” by Wendy Wasserstein was nothing of the kind. Although the playwright/coaster cheerfully cashed a fat paycheck (“high five figures”), very little she wrote was used in the production: her jokes were deemed “unperformably unfunny.” Most of the dialogue spoken, we are told, was the old “Sutherland” text from the SFO’s 1970s revival, touched up on the fly by Mansouri himself. La Cieca also hears that Bo Skovhus (Danilo) misbehaved as outrageously backstage as he did onstage, making lewd propositions to random chorus ladies and openly insulting leading lady Yvonne Kenny.

Speaking of thugs, La Cieca doesn’t understand how Donna Murphy, Charlotte D’Amboise, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kelsey Grammer, Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keyes, John Cougar Mellencamp and all the other artists performing at the Kennedy Center honors could acquit themselves with such dignity and restraint, and then that buffoon Bryn Terfel should blacken the eye of the occasion with his loutish and tasteless guying of the “Toreador Song.”

What’s worse, the piece was piss-poorly sung, and let us not even think of his Mercedes, Frasquita and Carmen, resembling three drag queens each “doing” Jane Eaglen. (One eyeful of that trio, and believe me, you’ll agree that operatic “lookism” still has quite an uphill climb to go.)
To think this is the same Bryn Terfel who gets all bent out of shape when an audience dares to applaud in between his Schubert Lieder! Ugh, disgusting. Ecch.

Next time you feel like complaining about the Broadway Boheme, remember, it could be worse. Bryn Terfel could decide not to retire from opera after all, and we’d be stuck with this bozo for another decade or more.

December 24: On dit Herbert Breslin has “fired” Luciano Pavarotti, or, to put it more accurately, they’re mutually dissolving what surely must be the most lucrative partnership in modern classical music history. Who ever would have thought that there would be a time when The Pav would be looking for new management?

Look for conductor/violist Alan Gilbert to be announced as the new musical director for Santa Fe Opera.

December 13: Due to illness, David Daniels must cancel his December 15 recital in Philadelphia, scheduled to be his solo debut in that city. The countertenor plans to reschedule early in January. The program, the same he performed a couple of weeks ago at Carnegie Hall, is very much worth the wait, as our editor James noted in his Gay City News review.

La Cieca is happy to note that Ben Letzler’s superb appreciation of Zarah Leander is now available online. This legendary camp diva’s first big success was in The Merry Widow (1931), and Dan Kessler has assured La Cieca that Leonie Rysanek herself was a great admirer of Leander’s performance of Mme. Armfelt in A Little Night Music. The Web page includes an MP3 clip of Leander singing Sondheim’s “Wo sind die Clowns,” as well such classics as “Ich bin eine Frau mit Vergangenheit,” “Kann denn Liebe S?nde sein,” “Nur nicht aus Liebe weinen,” and of course her signature tune “Wunderbar.”