21 Jan 2007
HANDEL: Giulio Cesare
This Sellars production had its origins at the 1985 Pepsico Summerfare Festival in Purchase NY.
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.
In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.
During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.
Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.
It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive archives.
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
This Sellars production had its origins at the 1985 Pepsico Summerfare Festival in Purchase NY.
I saw it as performed during a four-performance run in the regular subscription season of Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston in February of 1987 (an exception to the usual practice of the company, where productions were conceived and directed by the late Caldwell). I recall being irritated at the time by the fact that librettos were NOT available for purchase, meaning that the almost four hours of the production were only intelligible as dumb show (even the best operatic diction in Italian is not particularly intelligible up in the balcony to native English speakers). This seemed at the time to be a deliberate decision by the director, perhaps trying to avoid the cognitive dissonance produced by the collision between the libretto and his conception of the opera, and it is worth noting that the DVD reviewed here includes neither a libretto, nor subtitles in Italian, reinforcing my impression of his motives in 1987. The performance recorded here is based on a production from the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels.
Peter Sellars certainly has his partisans (those who awarded him the MacArthur Prize), but to my eyes and ears his work is sophomoric to the extreme. There are some worthy moments and performances here, but the overall impression it leaves is of an amateurishness appropriate to a high-school theatrical (and a bad one, at that). His contemporary Middle-East setting for the opera sabotages any seriousness that might be achieved by the work. There is little that one might describe as acting among the cast (the exception being the absolutely incomparable Lorraine Hunt, of whom more below). Jeffrey Gall's singing in the title role is virtuosic, fully matching the composer's demands, but his characterization of Caesar is far from the alpha male one might imagine. Cleopatra is fluently sung by the lyric soprano Susan Larson, with the character presented as a combination of the vamp Theda Bara (who played Cleopatra in a silent from 1917) with the porno queens of the seventies (particularly evident in the frequent close-ups in the DVD). Contralto Mary Westbrook-Geha produces a rich and expressive tone as Cornelia, whose husband Pompey's head appears from a hat box (!) in the first act, but her wooden acting is far from that required of the role, and her girth makes it unbelievable that Achilla and Curio should both be attracted to her, particularly in the frumpy power suit she must wear. Drew Minter's Tolomeo is imagined as a sort of teen punk with dyed hair (reminiscent of nothing more than Seth Green's Scott Evil in the Austin Powers franchise, though Green gets much more mileage from his punk than does Minter). The absolute nadir here (as in the OCB production) is Minter's aria sung in a minimal bathing suit. The estimable baritone James Maddalena manages to preserve his dignity as a general in military mufti.
The few redeeming moments of an almost unwatchable production belong to Lorraine Hunt, whose acting and singing is of a blistering intensity which shames the rest of the cast (compare, for example, her presence in the duet which ends Act 1, with that of Westbrook-Geha). Hunt would have been capable, had she not chosen a career as an opera singer, of exceptional work as a film actress, something that could not be said about her colleagues.
I would be remiss if I did not register the extremely variable quality of the audio. Not infrequently the singers go off-mike, which might be expected in a stage production, but in addition to this the audio levels go up and down unpredictably, so that it is impossible to simply set the volume at a comfortable level and relax. No, one must have the remote control always at hand to boost or lower the sound. I was also not much enamored of the simply functional contributions of the orchestra, playing modern instruments, seemingly at a constant mezzo-forte, and without subtlety or grace, sometimes threatening to overbalance the singers' contributions.