January 04, 2017 | Permalink
A couple of weeks ago, this guy - J Read - entered the subway car I was riding in with his violin and struck up "My Favorite Things" from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But he played it like a bel canto cabaletta, with lots of embellishments and curlicues along the way. Everyone applauded, and people were far more generous with donations than is usually the case with a subway serenade.
"Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand."
January 01, 2017 | Permalink
Above: Sir Bryn Terfel
Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel's knighthood was announced in the Queen's New Year's Honours List. Bryn had this to say about it: “A month ago, a letter was sent to my agent in Cardiff and I thought it was tickets to the rugby. I was absolutely speechless when I opened it – ashen-white, my heart-rate had tripled, my mouth was completely dry. What an accolade! I was given the CBE in 2003, The Queen’s Medal for Music in 2006 and now this is, without doubt, the icing on the cake. You have to step back and think how things have worked out for this farmer’s son from North Wales.”
Above: Bryn's leap to fame came at the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the Year competition; it's remembered as the "Battle of the Baritones" and ended with Dmitri Hvorostovsky being awarded the title Singer of the Year and Bryn taking the Lieder Prize. Within a week after the competition, my English friend Mollie sent me cassettes of the various competition rounds and the finals. In those days before the Internet became an instant way of sharing news and music from throughout the world, I liked to think of myself as the first person in the West to hear these two great voices. Since then, I have enjoyed both of them tremendously - both live and on disc - and am now hoping that Bryn will be asked to bring his newest role, Boris Godunov, to New York City.
Also knighted this New Year is the eminent conductor Jeffrey Tate (above).
Tate is currently chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra. He has endured a lifetime of dealing with spina bifida, and recently said: "The gay world is immensely hung up with physical perfection for some curious reason ...therefore, being disabled in that world is harder".
One sweet memory I have of Maestro Tate's conducting is this rendering of the Presentation of the Silver Rose from DER ROSENKAVALIER, sung at the Met's 100th Anniversary Gala by Judith Blegen and Frederica von Stade. The video quality is murky, but the music glows: I know, because I was there.
Everyone who knows me or reads my blog knows I am an avid tennis fan. It therefore pleases me immensely that we can now refer to the World #1 male tennis player as Sir Andy Murray (above). Murray has made great strides in raising the level of his game in recent seasons, and the honor caps off a year in which the Scotsman assumed the #1 ranking.
December 31, 2016 | Permalink
"You know, there are three kinds of Salomes: those who can sing it, those who can dance it, and those who should be shot!" ~ Leonie Rysanek
Wednesday December 28th, 2016 - My friend Dmitry and I had really been looking forward to seeing SALOME at The Met this season; it's among our favorite scores. I bought tickets in advance for two performances, since I wanted to hear both Željko Lučić and Greer Grimsley as Jochanaan.
Then came the news that the scheduled Salome, Catherine Naglestad, had withdrawn from the title-role, and was to be replaced by Patricia Racette. Racette used to be a particular favorite of mine, going back to her performances as Emmeline in Tobias Picker's opera at NYCO. She was a marvelous Met Mimi, Violetta, and Ellen Orford, and I very much enjoyed her Elisabetta in DON CARLO. But as the seasons have passed, the wear-and-tear has really begun to show in Racette's singing. Still, as recently as 2013, she gave a striking performance in Dallapiccola's IL PRIGIONIERO with The New York Philharmonic.
Since then, anything I have heard from her has sounded sadly worn and unpleasant. I suppose there's something honorable about "the sword wearing out the sheath" in the service of art, but after a while the artistry and dedication no longer compensate for the sound being produced.
I don't want to dwell on the negative, but much of Racette's singing was really off-putting. In the lower-to-middle-range passages, she was often covered by the orchestra. The heavy usage the soprano has subjected her voice to really shows in this music: the vibrato has spread so that in the upper range there's no core to a sustained note; the louder the note, the wider the fluctuation.
Salome is supposedly a teenager, but Strauss wrote the part in a way that only a mature and experienced soprano can cope with it. Thus the Dance of the Seven Veils must be handled with kid gloves; soprano and choreographer have to find ways for a woman of a certain age who is capable of singing the role to be reasonably credible in the dance-moves. For this famous scene, Racette chose an unflattering get-up: a sort of tuxedo affair with hot pants and a top hat. The choreography was duly carried out by the soprano and two men, but it was about as provocative as an after-dinner mint (to quote from the film CABARET). As the dance ended, Dmitry and I quietly left the theater.
To briefly note the evening's positive elements: Greer Grimsley was a powerful Jochanaan - though the amplification of his voice from the cistern was unflattering - and Gerhard Siegel was pretty much perfect as Herod. Excellent singing and portrayals from Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Herodias (great high notes!) and Kang Wang, who was vocally clear and thrilling as Narraboth. I loved seeing John Hancock onstage again, and there was fine work from Carolyn Sproule, Kathryn Day, Nicholas Brownlee, Richard Bernstein (ever the impressive stage figure, as when he kept the prophet on a long leash), Mikhail Petrenko, and Paul Corona. Allan Glassman led a strong quintet of Jews who were well-differentiated as personalities and just as annoying as one imagines Strauss intended them to be.
The orchestra played superbly, and conductor Johannes Debus did well to highlight the myriad hues of the opera's marvelous orchestration. Debus did not, however, always maintain an ideal union between pit and stage, sometimes drowning out the singers.
Neither Dmitry nor I could recall the fanciful fore-curtain of angels, but perhaps we've suppressed the memory of it. The audience seemed pretty much captivated by the whole performance, though the woman seated in the adjoining box giggled and commented aloud during the dance.
Over the years and through repeated hearing, I've found that my favorite passage of SALOME is Jochanaan's admonition to Salome to seek Christ at the Sea of Galilee. Tonight, Mr. Grimsley and concertmaster David Chan rendered this moment so beautifully; I suppose it's odd that an atheist should be moved by this affirmation of faith, but to be honest, I often find expressions of deep and simple belief to be truly touching.
Metropolitan Opera House
December 28th, 2016
Herodias................Nancy Fabiola Herrera
December 29, 2016 | Permalink
Above: James Levine
Tuesday December 27th, 2016 - Listening to James Levine conduct tonight's 'alternate cast' performance of Verdi's NABUCCO at The Met was something of a revelation. The venerable Maestro was greeted by a sustained roar of cheers and applause when he was spot-lighted in the pit at the start of the evening. Within moments, he and the Met musicians had set the music blazing off the page.
The score seemed remarkably fresh...and important: one could understand immediately why this opera sent Verdi's star on its immortal trajectory. A great sense of passion and propulsion prevailed, but the more solemn passages also rang true. Chorus and orchestra were on high form, and the opera swept forward vividly. For all the sense of urgency that Maestro Levine brought to the music, there were also wonderfully detailed moments, most notably the 'busy' wind playing that bubbles under the melodic line of the quintet "S'appresan gl'istanti". Taking things into overdrive, the Maestro propelled the big ensemble/finale of Act II to an exhilarating finish.
Following a marvelous rendering of the overture - which highlights several themes to be heard later in the opera - the chorus drew us in to the plight of the Israelites; particularly moving was the passage for female voices over a rolling harp line.
As Zaccaria, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy's commanding voice immediately set the tone for an evening of big-scale, unstinting singing. Although his lowest notes were not firmly settled (he even left one out), the imposing voice rang grandly into the hall - I began to think what a Wotan/Wanderer he might be.
I'll go to hear any singer who tackles the role of Abigaille in Verdi's NABUCCO. Tonight, the Russian soprano Tatiana Melnychenko took on this fearsome music in her Met debut; it's her only scheduled Met performance of the season. In looking at her bio, it seems Ms. Melnychenko is making an international career by performing two roles: Abigaille and Lady Macbeth; she has already sung the former at Verona, Montreal, Barcelona, Covent Garden, and Liege. After two acts as Abigaille, I thought she'd be interesting to hear as Tosca, Minnie, Maddalena di Coigny, or Gioconda.
The soprano seemed a bit tentative at first: the voice showing some unsteadiness and a hesitancy to sing in full chest-voice. Soon, though, she got matters in hand, and in the trio with Fenena and Ismaele, Ms. Melnychenko did some nice - even pretty - soft singing. Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Adam Diegel played the couple who wouldn't let opposing religious viewpoints stand in the way of their love. The tenor sang passionately in his ungrateful role whilst Ms. Herrera brought Mediterranean warmth to her vocalism, with strong dramatic accents and a nice dynamic mix.
Željko Lučić can be a very frustrating singer to listen to: the instrument is impressive, he can thunder forth or sustain a piano line, and his vocalism is imbued with an innate emotional quality; but so often, he wanders off pitch and that negates all the enjoyable aspects of his work. Tonight was one of his best performances in my experience, and while passing notes went slightly awry, the overall effect of his singing made a powerful impact.
All voices heretofore mentioned were in play during the dramatic moments where Ismaele saves Fenena from execution, Nabucco subjugates the Israelites, and their temple is set aflame; with Levine spurring them on, the first act ended excitingly.
We then move on to the great test-piece for soprano. Abigaille's discovery of the fact that she is in truth a slave rather than a princess is expressed in a passionate recitative spanning two octaves; the soprano dealt with this quite well, with touch of wildness here and there, and some good soft, reflective phrases thrown in. She scaled down her big, somewhat unwieldy voice to make a pleasing effect in the reflective cavatina "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno". Forewarned by the High Priest of Baal - sung by the young Serbian basso Sava Vemić with smouldering tone - of Fenena's treachery in betraying her faith, Ms. Melnychenko then tackled the great cabaletta "Salgo già del trono aurato", throwing in some insinuating piano phrases amid the eager, full-throttle expressions of her anticipated seizing of the throne. She handled the demands of this treacherous music successfully, if not with the total élan of Elena Souliotis on the classic Decca recording. Melnychenko spit out the words "...l'umile schiava" with venomous irony. The top C's were approached from slightly below, but then tonalized, and she sustained the final one to round-off the scena with overall positive marks.
Levine led the atmospheric prelude to the second scene of Act II with evident love for the music; the cellos sounded wonderful. In the great recitative "Vieni, O Levita" and the ensuing invocation "Tu sul labbro", Mr. Belosselskiy rolled out the tone in powerful, well-modulated phrases. The voice seems now more geared to the upper than the lower range, but he did sustain the concluding low-G to fine effect. People started applauding during the quiet postlude, spoiling the moment.
Abigaille rushes in, demanding that Fenena give up the crown; Ms. Herrera lashes out with a big retort: "Pria morirò...!" ("I'd sooner die!"). Suddenly Nabucco appears (he was rumored to be dead) and cries "Dal capo mio la prendi!" ("You'll have to take the crown from my head!").
Mr. Lučić (above) was so commanding here, and throughout the quintet that follows; his proclamation of himself as "god" (with thunderbolts greeting his blasphemy) and his truly affecting soft singing in his 'mad scene' maintained a very high level of dramatic vocalism. Ms. Melnychenko sustained the act's final A-flat securely.
I'd only planned to be there for the first half tonight; the excitement of the performance almost persuaded me to stay on, but the thought of a 40-minute intermission short-circuited that idea. On the 7th of January, I'll be at the final NABUCCO of the season and will surely stay to the end of that matinee performance.
It's to James Levine that true credit and thanks must go for serving up this exciting performance, reminding us yet again of Verdi's monumental place in the pantheon of operatic composers. The conductor not only gave the music great vitality but showed a keen attention to the needs of the singers. When Ms. Melnychenko seemed to want to slow down the pace in her cavatina, the conductor skillfully nudged her along, preventing the impetus from stalling.
The House was nearly full, and indeed two of the three remaining NABUCCO performances are sold out. In recent seasons, it's been the big, Met-sized productions that seem to be drawing crowds: TURANDOT, BOHEME, AIDA, and now NABUCCO. There's definitely something to be said for the atmosphere that develops when The Met is packed.
December 28, 2016 | Permalink
Teresa Stich-Randall (above) sang Donna Anna in DON GIOVANNI in the first performance I ever attended at the Old Met, in 1963. It took place only a few days after the assassination of John F Kennedy, but the plans had been made, the hotel booked, and opera tickets paid for, so my parents decided we should go ahead and make the trip to New York City. On the evening following the DON GIOVANNI, we saw FAUST.
Teresa Stich-Randall was a native of New Hartford, Connecticut. She studied at Columbia University where, in 1947, she created the role of Gertrude Stein in THE MOTHER OF US ALL by Virgil Thomson.
Arturo Toscanini 'discovered' Stich-Randall, calling her "the find of the century". He engaged her for a series of performances with his NBC Symphony Orchestra, including the High Priestess in AIDA and Nannetta in FALSTAFF (1950), both of which remain available commercially. She also sang regularly for him in his last years, as a soprano soloist in many choral works.
She went on to become a beloved star of the Vienna State Opera, where she performed regularly for two decades. In 1963 the Austrian government conferred on Stich-Randall the honorary title of Kammersängerin; she was the first American to be so honored. She was renowned for her Mozart interpretations.
Today, Stich-Randall is perhaps best-known for her participation as Sophie in the classic 1959 recording of DER ROSENKAVALIER conducted by Herbert von Karajan and featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig.
It was from Stich-Randall's LP on the Westminster label that I became familiar with the great Mozart soprano arias.
There is a brief post-script to my Stich-Randall story. In 1980, she returned to Connecticut to care for her aging mother. One Sunday morning, I read in the Hartford Courant a small notice that Stich-Randall was giving a recital that afternoon at a church in New Hartford. It was impossible for me to get there, but I sent her a letter and was surprised to receive a charming reply from the soprano. After her mother passed away, Stich-Randall returned to Vienna where she died in 2007.
December 26, 2016 | Permalink
Saturday December 24th, 2016 matinee - This afternoon we had the unalloyed pleasure of experiencing baritone Michael Todd Simpson's performance as Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho's breathtakingly beautiful opera L'Amour de Loin at The Met. Mr. Simpson was replacing the scheduled Eric Owens in the role, and to say that he gave an impressive interpretation would be putting it mildly: in terms of both voice and physical presence, Mr. Simpson was simply ideal.
We settled in at our balcony box this afternoon, observing the many empty seats for this matinee; neither the Saariaho nor Strauss's Salome - to be shown in the evening - is really holiday fare, but that's what The Met programmed on this day before Christmas. The Amour production has its striking moments, but overall it was the musical experience that thrilled us.
My friend Dmitry and I had been looking forward to seeing the Saariaho opera ever since the plan for the opera's Met premiere was whispered to me by my choreographer-friend Luca Veggetti. Luca is good friends with Ms. Saariaho, and they have collaborated here in New York: Luca staged the composer's ballet MAA at The Miller Theatre in 2010, and in 2013 he invited me to a rehearsal of the same work when he was preparing it for a Paris production. Luca turned to Ms. Saariaho's music for his 2012 all-female dancework From the Grammar of Dreams, created for The Martha Graham Dance Company. In 2014, a fascinating collaboration between Gotham Chamber Opera and The Martha Graham Dance Company resulted in a memorable presentation of Saariaho's The Tempest Songbook at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: a saw an early rehearsal, and the stunning opening night performance. Ms. Saariaho was also featured in a composer's evening at The Miller Theatre in February 2014.
L'Amour de Loin premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. The Robert Lepage production - which The Met is presenting - is the tenth production of this striking work to date; that fact alone attests to the opera's viability, which springs - in my opinion - both from the magical sound-world Kaija Saariaho has created and from the ineffable sadness and mystery of the story.
Jaufré Rudel was a 12th century troubadour from Blaye, near Bordeaux in south-west France. He fell in love - sight-unseen - with the Countess of Tripoli after hearing her praised by pilgrims returning from Antioch. He wrote poems about her and sang of her nobility and virtue. From this idealized love sprang Jaufré's desire to meet her. He joined the Crusade and set sail for the Holy Land, but he fell gravely ill on the Mediterranean voyage and arrived at Tripoli only to die in the Countess's arms. She had him buried in the temple of her city, and thereafter, undone by her grief, she became a nun.
Kaija Saariaho's score, as with Debussy's for Pelléas et Mélisande, creates a unique atmosphere with its timeless and treasurable tale of a love that is both exalted and doomed, rendered in music of intoxicating tenderness and - eventually - despair. In shimmering orchestral textures, the composer summons up visions of the sea which divides the lovers and upon which the mysterious Pilgrim sails in his fragile boat, carrying messages between Jaufré and his beloved Countess.
From the very first measures, this music drew me in and held me, as if in a dream from which one doesn't want to awaken. Countless passages from the opera were so hauntingly expressive that I regretted not having booked more than one performance. The music darkened considerably in the second half of the evening: there's a vivid sea-faring prelude to Act IV, some dance-like rhythms spring up; and Jaufré's lamenting phrases that he may not live long enough to meet his beloved are deeply moving.
The Met orchestra played superbly under the baton of Susanna Mälkki: I loved watching her from my perch high above the pit, and she was given a warm reception when she appeared onstage at the end of the opera.
This afternoon was actually my second encounter with Michael Todd Simpson at The Met; in 2012 he caught my attention in the brief role of the Tsar's herald in Khovanschchina. It is Mr. Simpson, as Jaufré Rudel, who opens the Saariaho opera. But even before he began to sing, the baritone established himself as a charismatic presence: tall, fair of complexion, with expressive eyes and handsome cheekbones, Mr. Simpson put me in mind of the Royal Ballet's Edward Watson - and believe me, I can't pay a higher compliment than that.
Yet all that would have been for nought had Mr. Simpson not had the vocal goods to back up his physical appeal. But ...he does! This is a warm, clear, easily-produced voice - a voice wonderfully present in the big House. Mr. Simpson seemed utterly at home, both in the persona and in the music; one would have thought he'd sung this piece dozens of times since every word and note in his nuanced performance radiated assurance and grace. All afternoon, the Simpson voice was a veritable font of baritonal beauty, and while comparisons are not always meaningful, I can only say that listening to Mr. Simpson gave me the same deep pleasure I have often drawn from the singing of Sanford Sylvan and Thomas Hampson.
Deservedly hailed with bravos at his solo bow, Mr. Simpson proved so much more than a stand-in: he's a distinctive artist, and one I hope to hear again - soon and often.
More sublime singing this afternoon came from mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (above, in a Dario Acosta portrait) in the role of The Pilgrim. Patiently plying her small boat across the stage, Tamara looked out at us with far-questing eyes. She's clad in neutral garb, a messenger with a masculine aura; but there's no question that the voice is anything but intrinsically female. And what a voice it is! As with every note I have heard from this superb singer since she first came onto the scene, Ms. Mumford's house-filling and lustrous tone, evenness of range, and pliantly expressive phrasing combined to imbue her performance with a marvelous glow.
Above: Tamara Mumford as The Pilgrim
Above: Susanna Phillips as Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. In this role, Ms. Phillips had her finest Met success to date. A beautiful young woman, she well-captured the initial reserve and ultimate passion of the poet's muse. Traces of stridency marked some of her uppermost notes, but overall the soprano coped impressively with the demands of the role, creating a lyrical atmosphere with her clear phrasing and sense of dynamics. And she looked so lovely, gazing out across the sea to her lover from afar.
Robert Lepage's infatuation with machinery - which gave us the clunky, cumbersome $20 million RING Cycle set that languishes in storage somewhere - was evident in a huge metal see-saw apparatus that swung slowly around the stage thru much of the evening. The waves of the sea were evoked by row upon row of tiny LED lights which flickered in changing colours and patterns, eventually tiring the eye. The chorus are seated beneath the waves and pop up when they are called on to sing. As the afternoon progressed, I increasingly wished The Met had imported the imaginative ENO/Cirque de Soleil production rather than this earthbound contraption. Still, I was extremely grateful to experience the opera live in any setting.
Some people complained of the opera's longueurs; I never felt this at all, but I must say that the end of the opera was something of a disappointment. After Jaufré's death, one wants a silence and then an evaporating orchestral postlude. Instead, Clémence has a sort of mad scene that becomes too verismo in its intensity. She expresses the same feelings, over and over, while one is always hoping each utterance is her last. There's even some screaming. For me, this shattered the mood of all that had gone before. How much more poetic it would have been to end with Jaufré's tender phrase: "In this moment, I have all that I desire."
Most people seem to believe that a love for someone you've never met is unrealistic, and that a mutual bond in unattainable. Speaking from personal experience, I strongly disagree.
December 25, 2016 | Permalink