30 September 2007

Therefore, ignore everything I say

Unavoidable to wander away from the music and get sucked back into thinking about work, or to consuming lists of daily life. Happens to me at the Met, during awesome scenes, and more than I care to admit. I nearly had to slap my face back to the opera on Thursday, for the obligatory second helping of Lucia di Lammermoor, right at the vortex of the mad scene. Walking off into the clear fall night of New York, I could say how meticulous and thoughtful every placed note, every action was; how well the text was served, how professional the phrases were churned, and with undeniable passion; how world-class the grand musical performance just witnessed. But in the end, it comes down to an elementary question, of how much I really dug the underlying Natalie Dessay sound, and I can't say I really do. Lawd knows I'm trying.

But plug a favorite singer into a similar scenario, and a comparatively thoughtful and professional performance would yield an opposite reaction. Which is to say that all (my) criticism collapses from the arbitrary scaffolds built around ad hoc criteria. One's deep resonance (or dissonance) with a voice may be rationalized with creative words and witty metaphors, but at its heart it is really elusive to logic or explanation. This is my simple experience: this is how I adore Renee Fleming, how I can now fathom the possibility of liking (gulp!) Netrebko, etc.. For if a formula can be mapped out that can justify the level of ecstasy, then all magic that attends that ecstasy is, by definition, drained. I see that every other thing around the voice may help or diminish the way it touches me, but the prime thing is that it touches me. And in unnameable ways, so screwed up that the words in this blog cannot even point to the vicinity of that love.

27 September 2007

Blog prec8m from a few bars of Arturo's music

I can give you the musical highlights in one sentence: Stephen Costello as Arturo sang beautifully, with gleaming, compact tone and jaw-dropping confidence.
I can't say Marcello Giordani had a very good night in the end. Stephen Costello's debut as Arturo was striking indeed; the young tenor sang with perfect confidence from the outset, his voice showing real personality as it blended clarity of line with grainy richness of texture. I found myself wishing he were singing Edgardo in Giordani's place; he will do so on October 25.
A heads up: you might want to catch the performance in which Stephen Costello graduates from...Shemp, or whatever the character's named, to Enrico, because I think in a year or two you may have trouble getting tickets to hear him. This is just a hunch still, based on not that much, but I will tell you the boy isn't even my type so I'm at least not listening with the ears in my pants.
The most secure singing came from debutant Stephen Costello in the small role of Arturo, his tone bright and hardy, with a strip of metal down the center.
(from a non-review of the open rehearsal) Young Stephen Costello will be making his Met debut as Arturo in Lucia on the Monday Opening Night. This young tenor is destined to become one of the greats, IMO. His voice is clear, beautiful, and carried extremely well in the large auditorium that is the Met. His performance leaves one wishing that Arturo has more to do in the opera!
The best part for visiting Philadelphians, though, was when tenor Stephen Costello (locally born and trained) arrived for Lucia's arranged Act II marriage. In his Met debut, he looked wooden - but outside the confines of the Academy of Vocal Arts' acoustically odd theater on Spruce Street, his tenor voice unfurled as though it had found its true home.
An appealing young tenor, Stephen Costello, had a solid Met debut as the well-meaning Arturo.

(That's it, Mr. Tommasini?)
My personal favorite:
Monday night saw the Met debut of a lyric tenor with a big future: That's Stephen Costello, an American. He was Arturo, and, initially, he was a bit tight. But he was also focused, penetrating, and remarkable. He will graduate to the part of Edgardo soon — indeed, he will take it later in this Met run.
Initially = first few notes of his little stanza? (Tight & penetrating ... not going there.)

26 September 2007

Yet another schizo evening

Gounod ROMEO ET JULIETTE, Met 25.IX.2007; c. Domingo; Netrebko, Alagna, Leonard, Degout, Sigmmundsson.

Anna Netrebko is nothing if not loud. And bosomy. Loud and bosomy. But this time, she was actually good. No matter for Sieglinde, she hears that crow tastes like chicken anyway. I wasn't exactly totally blown away--well, physically blown away by her sheer sonics, yes--but she delivered something mature, nuanced, sensitive: traits one doesn't normally associate with Hooter burgers. In dim lighting, away from the toxic limelight of fame (the day after the overhyped prima), I can see how some thoughtful people can fall in love with Anna: her instrument has a natural glow, a dark sheen, a texture that conveys joy in sorrow (and vice versa)--and when used well, there is magic. But she tends to sing awfully loud (did I mention how loud she was?), and by the end of the evening, my ears were shot (thanks to Domingo too, see below). And her tone sometimes sags like wet towels hung on a clothes line, but this time she was alert to correct much of it, which pleased me. And let me tell you, she inhabited this drab production much better than Natalie Dessay. Two years ago, tiny Dessay looked tinier and so out of place, while Netrebko embraced the kitsch with an abundance of game and spirit. She had what appeared to be a minor mad scene with the potion, energetic and in-the-moment, perhaps feeding off the spirit of Dessay's Lucia lingering in the air. Netrebko was brilliant in this scene and the last act, fully committed, solid in voice ... With these words you'd think Sieglinde's writing about someone else. But when well-behaved, and in the right rep (i.e., lyric) Netrebko can really rise to deserve her pop fame.

Roberto Alagna, on the other hand, performed slightly off the mark. I blame Netrebko's loudness, and Maestro Placido Domingo's utterly vapid and deafening orchestra, for Alagna's hopeless attempts to make his sound bigger. The result was major tone spreading, and what difficulty in the top range he's been experiencing of late was pushed front and center. Also, the desire to be as loud as Netrebko (nearly impossible) made for a monotonous and at times painful delivery, with none of the grace and sweetness that marked his Werther and Faust in my cherished memory. But he looked dashing in the turqouise tights, and moved as a Romeo moved, with a boyish charm and some innocence.

Does the Met get a wholesale discount when they employ Domingo as tenor and conductor in the same season? Because that's the only reason for finding him in the pit that I could think of. His tenor is legend, but his conducting is appalling in its crudeness. He refuses to reign in the dynamics, instead encouraging the orchestra to modulate only between loud and louder. So any trace of sweetness or hushed wonder is erased from the score (except those overtly quiet moments with the string solos and such, which even Domingo can't f*ck up), and the evening felt soooo long. Gounod's love opera ought to come as a nice cool breeze at sunset (with a drink of potion in hand), but Domingo is too muscular, too much of a tenor, not "gay" enough to revel in whispered affections. He is ruining my Bobby, and this opera.

So yeah, weird that Sieglinde would come out of an evening also headlined by Alagna and Domingo nearly raving about Netrebko. Stranger things have happened, certainly, but I'm happy to give credit, and happier to have appreciated her fine performance.

Oh, I almost forgot: the bed scene made everyone blush. Bobby and Anna made out like they were actually doing it prior to the curtain's rise. And then they did some "cowgirl" maneuvers that I never thought I'd see on the Met stage. The top of Anna's white negligee rested just a hair above her nipples, because it was showing ample mammary skin, even this thoroughly gay viewer was noticed gawking. Not so Juliette-ey, but then Anna isn't about such archaic notions anyway. (Another observation: Anna's feet are larger than Bobby's dainty pair. What could it mean?)

25 September 2007

Morning-after pill

In this week following the thirtieth anniversary of her death, the spirit of Callas stalks our earthly realm. I’m guessing she’s in a rage right now. I know that I am, after seeing the abortion of a Lucia that discharged upon the stage of the Metropolitan Opera last night.
Skip the other Lucia blog reviews (I don't really mean that, but you know what I mean) and jump to vilaine fille for the rest of Marion Lignana Rosenberg's incisive analysis.

Meanwhile, Sieglinde is preparing to go back to the Met, this time for Roberto Alagna's Romeo. (We love Bobby here.)

Chandeliers at opening night


Donizetti LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, Met prima, 24.IX.2007; c. Levine; Dessay, Giordani, Kwiecien, Relyea.

Is it ok to say that everyone pretty much sucked in Acts I and II, but then redeemed themselves and their stellar careers in Act III? Starting from the top, Maestro James Levine, god of Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, and some Verdi, should be served a restraining order to keep him from screwing the bel canto repertory. His heavyhanded approach is toxic to the natural arch of these cornerstone Italian works: he has no oom-pa-pah, no relaxed, rhythmic gait that self-propels bel canto, instead choosing to color every phrase with a high romantic palette and thick textures. The result is a rudderless, claustrophobic submarine in pitch black waters, totally not what bel canto should feel, no matter how many lovers suffer and die on stage. Only when the Mad Scene happens, when Donizetti reels in the orchestration, does Levine become (once again) transcendent and masterful. This scene, and the Edgardo's Tomb Scene, are painted with mostly quiet and introspective phrases, which benefit from the slow-and-slower, piano-and-pianoer technique that our Maestro has patented.

The singers are similarly schizophrenic. Natalie Dessay has this mannerism that I don't get: a kind of pop-inspired portamento, sliding from note to note like she's the country songbird Anne Murray crooning a prairie ditty. I like a dash of staccato here and there, a more direct attack on some notes (especially above the staff). If I want to hear Celine Dion-type singing, I'd ... uhm, I guess I'd rather kill myself before that happens. (I wonder if French pop music in her teen years has something to do with this idiosyncrasy.) She is an unparalleled Zerbinetta, but Zerbinetta sensibility leaves arias like "Regnava nel silenzio" cold and displaced. These things, however, are quickly forgiven because everything about her voice works miraculously well in the Mad Scene. Here, she is simply magnificent: sophisticated shading, total emotional investment in every phrase, technically competitive coloratura (though high-note-shy and somewhat trill-challenged), and skillful use of pianos and diminuendos. Her spellbinding scene more than washes away the ickiness of prior scenes. Dessay reestablishes her grip on the Lucia trophy, and Sieglinde's not raising any objection. (Though she might want to reconsider that wretched Klytamnestra scream that she unleashed just prior to the cabaletta. Whoever agreed with you that it was a good idea should be screamed off the staff and into the unemployment line.)

It is now established custom that Marcello Giordani starts his evenings with stuffed nasal passages and a serious hangover: lazy, nasal, rough, scratchy singing dominates his every Act I since the beginning of time. But we've learned the virtues of patience and perseverance, and right at the point when you're truly tested as a fan, he delivers when it absolutely counts. His Tomb Scene is the rare combination of virile masculinity and extreme sensitivity: thoroughly touching, sorrowful, but never weak. The auditorium shook in his impeccable squillo, and we choked up with the natural sob of his timbre.

Mary Zzzimmerman, the spawn of Zzzeffirelli and Zzzambello, overflows with ideas, some of them interesting, a number quite distracting, and a couple totally genius. If the photographer in the sextet pares his actions down considerably, the conceit would have been more effective. I actually liked the idea of successively pulling everyone into the photo viewfinder the way Donizetti did musically in his expanding sextet and chorus. Elsewhere, her Zeffirelliesque Act II curtains failed her--velcro is always bad news--and her Zambelloesque white lady ghosts in Act I and III were a total flop. Dessay's Tomb Scene apparition was a scene stealer-- more accurately, a "scene distracter" (if Merriam or Webster will let me), much like a number of other details that Zimmerman cooked up. For his final scene, Giordani was building a truly moving posture (and you can feel the tears about to fall)-- till the Dessay ghost enters the view quite unexpectedly, and with hideous hair and makeup, thus shattering the beautiful arch. Dessay was probably more than happy to oblige Zimmerman on this one, because she herself had many scenes stolen from her elsewhere in the evening. (The downside: curtain calls looking really, really scary.) But putting aside this misfire, her Mad and Tomb Scenes were on the mark. Dessay reveled in the athletic demands of Zimmerman's staircase, gliding over the large set (ostensibly borrowed from the Traviata production) with the same ease she possessed vocally. And what a grand, grand exit: Lucia's lifeless body being carried by three men solemnly up the stairs after all the music has ended, pausing for a few seconds after every step-- I have not witnessed a more brava-inducing maneuver.

Rounding up the rest of the cast: Mariusz Kwiecien sang with too much fervor and not enough elegance; John Relyea was just about perfect; Stephen Costello, debuting as Arturo, milked his one stanza for all its worth: he is on his way to lovely lyric career.

But stopping here, because Sieglinde has to do her morning run. (She's fat from consecutive Chinese food meals. She likes her salt-baked porkchops, need I explain.) Certainly many, many more things to say, so watch for updates in the coming days. Will post more pics later as well.

24 September 2007

First day of the season

A balmy 77 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm heading to Lincoln Center in half an hour. By subway. In jeans (most likely). And t-shirt. With my shiny new digital camera. Various reports (among them: La Cieca & Co., OperaChic, SarahB) over the weekend seem less divided than I expected. Kudos to Mary Zimmerman for adding to Lucia without totally f*ing it up. I suspect that a few things have been reworked since (e.g. the photo-sextet, the comic marriage contract signing), so it should be better this time-- we shall see. (Though things may be murkier backstage??)

But I'm off ... see you tonight (late).

UPDATE: Those who don't know who to sleep with to get prima tix should go participate in La Cieca's boisterous (and at times erotic) opening night chat.

22 September 2007

In two seasons, fierce catfighting at plaza fountain for Sieglinde's ticket dollars

The 2009-2010 (NYCO) season — which will be (Gerard) Mortier's first fully in residence, since for the next two years he is finishing his tenure as director of the Paris National Opera — will be devoted to 20th-century works. It will open, as he has said before, with Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," and will include two other icons of American opera: Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" and John Adams's "Nixon in China." The English tenor Ian Bostridge will sing in a production of Benjamin Britten's "Death in Venice."

In accordance with Mr. Mortier's previously expressed desire to take City Opera to other parts of the city, the first season will include a production of Messiaen's "St. Francis of Assisi," at the Park Avenue Armory and Drill Hall, where it will be performed amid an installation by the artist Ilya Kabakov. (The painter Anselm Kiefer is also lined up to design an opera set, Mr. Mortier said.) There will be other productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and, pending negotiations, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. [via Alex Ross]
Meanwhile, across the plaza for the same season, Peter Gelb's Met is planning to bring into repertory Janacek's From the House of the Dead (for Esa-Pekka Salonen's debut), Verdi's Attila (for Riccardo Muti's pants-creaming debut), Rossini's Armida (another Zimmerman gig, with neglected diva Renee Fleming), Thomas's Hamlet (not heard at the Met since the 19th century), Shostakovich's The Nose, and Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (last heard at the Met in 1907); along with major revivals of Lulu, Die Frau ohne Schatten (yay!), The Ghosts of Versailles, Benvenuto Cellini, and *gasp* a new production of Tosca (fare thee well, Franco Z.), and other highlights (three wows for Anna Netrebko's three Hoffmann heroines, in a new production--wow! wow! wow!).

If Sieglinde wants front row seats for this Thrilla in Lincoln Plaza, its perhaps time for her to inspect Damrosch Park grounds for a place to crash, or else hunt for a generous "friend" with a nice "pad" on the low UWS. Girl's-gotta-do and that sort of sin.

Elsewhere in the same NY Sun interview:
Mr. Mortier, who has long been interested in bringing art to a broad public, will expand the Opera-for-All program, which currently offers $25 tickets to three performances in the fall, to run through the whole season, with 40,000 tickets available between $5 and $20. He will also organize educational concerts, to be held on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, which will combine a musical performance with a kind of talk-show format, in which Mr. Mortier will converse with a celebrity guest, possibly an actor or a rock singer, who is an opera fan.
A "celebrity guest, possibly an actor or a rock singer, who is an opera fan"? Good luck with that. (All I can come up with is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she's neither an actor or a rock singer. Oh, and Michael Lucas, who's at the Met quite often--he's some sort of "actor", and does some "hard rock" stuff too-- he'd be perfect.)

20 September 2007

My last summer afternoon: a rainbow dips from storm clouds just passed. Up north: the Yankees on a tear, the Mets in a free fall, the Met gearing back up. Another grand migration under way, as charted.

Hey look, it's the Met's Armonica Mama. (Will she be similarly costumed in the pit?)

And this from Armonica Mama, via the Lucia blog:

“You don’t have to be a pianist to play the armonica, but it helps. On a piano or celesta, you can play almost blindfold because you can feel where the black keys are. This is trickier. It’s just glass bowls, there’s no identifying surface, so I must always keep my eyes on them. I watch the conductor for the start, but then I can’t keep looking back and forth. I’ve been playing this since 1990, and I still have to look to find where C is!”

Sieglinde, regnava nel silenzio. She's out of town, that's why she's not at The Open House, but some key operatives will be, so things are cool.

Patricia at oboeinsight points us to some of Natalie Dessay's YouTube clips of Lucia, including one featuring our instrument du jour at the Opera Bastille. If you can hear over the pirate's heavy breathing (Lawd knows what else he was doing), you'll realize that the glass harmonica is in fact audible, in that odd, inaudible sort of way. It's like being wholly immersed in the faintest sound possible . Totally cool, no? (She also reminds us that Beverly Sills's Lucia recording (with Schippers) employs the glass harmonica too, so I gotta dig that recording out today.)

But back to the open house-- it's the final dress rehearsal, yes, but thousands will be there to see it, so it's practically a real thing. (Performers will be quick to tell you that the final dress is a real thing, but the presence of a full house surely makes a difference, no?) Of course, critics (who draw paychecks) in attendance won't be publishing official performance reviews, but bloggers and other shut-ins aren't bound by such quaint unwritten rules, so there should be enough "leaks" to color the discourse leading to the prima evening Monday. Which is probably the point, but what if it sucked? Last year's "new" Madama Butterfly production was already a known quantity before arriving in New York (it originated at ENO), so this wasn't much of an issue then ... Now I wonder if they had a dress for the dress, which would have been the real final dress ...

Or whatever. Sieglinde shall be back in time for the festivities on Monday, so hang in there, lovely people.

19 September 2007

Which reminds me, I'm all out of Q-tips

If you need another reason to double-check that your cellphone is in the off position right before the Mad Scene, news comes that the glass harmonica will make an appearance in our Met Lucia. That lovely instrument! I recall seeing it in the pit for the last Lucia revival two years ago, just under the lip of the stage, to the left of the prompter's box - yes, I said "seeing" because I don't think I really heard the damn thing. It's about as loud as the breathing of the guy next to you, and in a cathedral space of the Met, its sound has to be partly imagined. But more to the issue, I don't recall it playing the major obbligato role-- my sharp-as-rags memory tells me it had more of a supporting role to the more audible flute, but I could be totally wrong, so ... anyway, it seems that, for this new production, Jimmy is heeding Donizetti's original intentions fully, so best remind your seatmates not to breathe for five minutes upon Lucia's mad entry.

Listen for the glass harmonica right when Lucia appears, just before she utters "Il dolce suono". And then right through about 3 minutes of her music, culminating in the eerie "Sparsa e di rose! Un'armonia celeste" exchange. (If it continues through the "Del ciel clemente un riso ..." fireworks, jackpot!) If you're one of the lucky ones to hear it, you'd agree with Donizetti that the ethereal eerieness of its sound is worth all the trouble.

BTW, to add dignity to your Millo-pole intermission conversation, Sieglinde suggests that you drop this little trivia: None other than the Founding Kite Flyer Father Benjamin Franklin invented the mechanical version of the glass harmonica. And if someone snips a "Who doesn't know that" response, quickly dismiss it as another stupid American invention, and declare you much prefer the uncomtaminated sonics of the 50 individual glass bowls set on the table, before stabbing the bitch back with your iciest glare.

Blogging the golden age

Wait, who reached into my deepest dreams and made one happen? Aprile Millo is blogging, and it's more than a bit disorienting, and quite obscenely exciting. If I were a Catholic nun and I found out that the Virgin Mary blogged, I'd have approximately the same celestial ecstasy. Because we at Sieglinde's Diaries adore her oh so much. We are eager to receive blog posts on her own performances (next is Montemezzi's L'Incantesimo), and, wouldn't it be an eternal Christmas Eve if she were to review other people's performances too? Watch out for the rose-perfumed talons, oooh. But that's a time-will-tell and what-limb-to-give-up issue. Meanwhile, in the here-and-now, we are happy to read any emanation. Her latest post laments the current state of the American Idol we call opera:

With each passing a little bit of history and example is gone too. That is going to mean a lot in a few years. The examples of what is correct and acceptable in music. The right color for a role is completely gone today as everyone sings everything. A soubrette, no matter how dark would never approach Il Trovatore or Norma. A voice for Wagner would be just that with rare exceptions if the color could pass for Italian.

Style? If they sing the notes and reasonably make it to the end most seem happy. To have discussed music with Tebaldi, and Olivero, and Milanov, with Bergonzi and Pavarotti and so many fabulous singers from the past generation is to hear about a time when there was a more advanced expectation from both the singer and the public. A feeling of religiosity was pervasive, a “calling”….dressed as if going to church, respect.
(Is all we're saying, Anna.)

17 September 2007

More than peanuts

Spent Sunday afternoon listening to the Sills tribute on the internet while waiting for my boiled peanuts to cook. In what developed into an afternoon of firsts, I hadn't known how long raw peanuts in the shell take to cook, and didn't want to use google, lest I disrupt the delicate Sirius stream, so I had no choice but to employ the same strategy that Bush is using in Iraq: taste every few minutes; who needs planning and information; keep it boiling till "success". My amateur Top Chef estimate was 15 minutes. Google would later reveal that at least 2 hours were needed. So picture the running back and forth between computer and stove the entire length of the broadcast. Finally, the peanuts cooked, in time for Henry Kissinger's tribute. Nuts-- perfect!

But prior to the Kissinger-peanuts combo, something odd happened. Rushing back from one of the routine peanut taste tests, I rejoined the tribute in the midst of a musical interlude. Nah, it's not Dessay, I thought, tone's much too warm; nah, can't be Netrebko either, too nuanced. Who else could it be. Just then the soprano unleashed an ascending set of open-throated high notes, and I knew immediately. Need I say I was floored. This is the Anna Netrebko that ought to be on display: comfortable in the repertory, of a lyrical disposition, appropriately restrained. The lazy, sagging nature of her tone (I call the "wet towel" syndrome), a deal breaker in bel canto, became an advantage: it materialized as a longing wail vital to a lament. I'm not familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Nightingale and the Rose", but such things hardly matter when enchanted.

So here's an mp3 of the three magical minutes. (For those unfamiliar with Rapidshare: click the "free" option; enter the four-character code; click "download"; wait.) I expect to return to my default settings (i.e. antagonizing bitter venomous Anna-basher self) by the Romeo next week (or not?), but in the meantime, I thought I'd break from tradition, perhaps as a little tribute to a great and generous lady, Beverly Sills, who, in life's turmoil, seemed always be mindful of the brighter side.

[Private to the Met's and Sirius's legal departments: I expect to hear from you shortly. Don't disappoint me.]

UPDATE: OperaChic, in town (yay!), issues a report so comprehensive you'd think she's up for a job at the New York Times Homo Section. (Love the "pubic" shot!) ... SarahB, as always, delivers great pictures from the event ... Maury was there too, with the same wrong expectation that I had about the affair.

16 September 2007

No peace

Maria Callas, today 30 years dead: we look for you everywhere. We worship your singularity, yet we demand every singer to do you. And when they dare do you, we trash them to pieces, without mercy. We yearn for you, but you are everywhere. We are helpless in your gaze. You are the gnawing curse that diminishes the rest. For our peace, we wish you never existed.

Now that that bullshit is out of the way, let's participate in the delightful insanity of the rabid Callas fanatics on this special day. Among the chosen is Bruno A.C. Rodrigues, who has organized a fascinating collection of Callas audio/video memorabilia on, you guessed it, YouTube. (Hey Bruno, I'm a big fan, call me.) His video creations span the wide range between Paxil and Xanax, all thoroughly enjoyable. Among my favorites are:

Why Callas fans absolutely hate Scotto;
Why Tebaldi fans absolutely hate Callas;
Psychedelic "Casta Diva" duet between Callas and Sutherland (and many other bizarre combinations--works better with some sort of alcohol on hand);
The definitive compendium of Callas lip-licking;
Callas's real threat to spit on the faces of her enemies;
Callas's funeral, apropos to the occasion;
and lastly, Callas nearly gored by a baby elephant:

I suggest that you spend the rest of the weekend watching all of the BACR videos, to honor the memory of the greatest singer of the 20th century.

15 September 2007

I'm not really a singer, but I play one on stage

NATALIE DESSAY: I’m very happy about what will happen this year at the Met [and that I get] to show these different things, because I consider myself more of an actress than a singer. I wanted to become an actress when I was very young, and through theater I came to opera. But opera chose me. It was not I who chose opera. I realized that I had a voice, and maybe it was easier for me to go onstage with my singing voice than to be only an actress.
Something new to see at the opera: a soprano who'd rather be an actress will open the Metropolitan Opera's new season. "Singing actresses" (or "acting singers") are so coming into vogue these days, sopranos aren't even paying lip service to the supremacy of that thing called "voice". Natalie Dessay has excellent vocal technique, and I expect her to triumph in this Lucia, so it won't be such a scandal in the end. But I find it strange that stage directors and singing actors are choosing to expend so much energy in the search for novel theatrical value and deep dramatic truth in Lucia's squalid narrative, and pretending that they exist (I mean, really, was the trip to Scotland that necessary), when it's essentially a vehicle for extreme vocal calisthenics and stanza-by-stanza micro-emoting. Truthfully, I wish them all the luck in their effort to dazzle me with new insights, which I'll be happy to receive, but I doubt, by evening's end, I'd be moved by things other than what I've come for in the first place: Donizetti's profuse vocal writing for the Mad and Tomb Scenes, and voices (not bodies or scenery) that could do them justice.

14 September 2007

My last post about politics, I swear, because it's 10 days before prima and I gotta shift all attention to couture

Everyone's stumbling over one other to position themselves with respect to the now historic MoveOn.org ad: the Republicans calling for beheadings, the Democrats shitting in their pantsuits. But if they take the time to read the text of the ad, and the supporting documents organized by MoveOn, they'd soon realize that it's less a personal attack on the "integrity" of the General, and more a challenge to the "facts" that this administration is (mis)using as evidence. If anything, the "General Betray Us" is the only slip, but people, there is a war, and we ought to care less about imaginary insults to the "ass-kissing little chickenshit", and focus more on the mortal casualties that will result from more and more lies.

Now, what to wear, what to wear!

13 September 2007

typical Thursday

Apropos of other news, it's unclear whether the prize for worst performance of the past month should go to slatternly Britney Spears (who bombed at the Video Music Awards) or to ultra-whitebread Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who got caught with his pants down in a Minnesota airport restroom. During the wave of ribald reaction to the latter flap, it was remarkable how few radio hosts and their callers (including on sports shows) had been aware of the cult status of toilets as a pickup joint for gay men.

I certainly recall my own surprise when informed by a fellow Yale graduate student that a certain john in the stacks of august Sterling Library (the third floor?) was a renowned hot spot for man-on-man action. I found it a bit de trop: When I wanted an erotic break, I simply riffled through the volumes of Paris Match for photos of Catherine Deneuve.
Wrong floor.

Meanwhile, eleven days before prima, I'm struggling to find a good fall rhythm. I accomplished some work over the summer, but, like Anna Netrebko's trills, not enough. "Never enough" is the curse that comes with the academic profession, thanks to the curve-busters, those who have more published articles than sexual encounters, I hate (and pity) you all. I have undiagnosed ADD. I'm working on four projects. I also follow all the liberal sites, political news, news about news, and music blogs; cruise YouTube (like you don't); explore the value of atheism (saps the "soul", if any); download loads of free stuff (if you have to ask, don't); watch reruns of Frasier and laugh automatically at every repeated punchline (and the Golden Girls); run and swim and struggle to not open another bag of Sun chips (impossible); there're thousands of shrink-wrapped CDs and DVDs, dozens of unanswered e-mails, John Stewart on DVR, New Yorkers piled this high on the night stand. And Yankee games! And housework! There're places on earth waiting to be visited, coral islands and tropical fish to be snorkeled; family and friends to call, Italian to be learned (more seriously). Photographs to be taken, or printed, or sent, or viewed ... How does one deal with the unyielding accretion of living in these modern times. Every time the sun sets, we're behind another day, breathless and paralyzed. Then the drone of guilt sets in, at night, like heartburn. Perhaps the greatest medical breakthrough of the 21st century would be a pill to erase the biological need for sleep.

OK, back to work. (And no, in case you're wondering, I'm not attending the Sills tribute--but thanks to Sirius, I'll be tuning in--or the Lucia open house. My season starts strictly on September 24.)

11 September 2007


While spending much of the afternoon cleaning up my harddrive and my desk, I have CSPAN on for the testimonies of Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker before the Senate. It's sickening that 6 years after the towers fell, these politicians are still trying to find their way out of Iraq, while soldier-kids and thousands of innocents die, for a deepening mess that has nothing to do with the towers falling 6 years ago. Which now should be perfectly obvious, but the wise Sen. Byrd still felt the need to ask Petraeus explicitly if he knows of any connection between Iraq and the attacks of 9/11. Petraeus said "none that I'm aware of."

This is not beating a dead horse. Question 88 of the just released NYT/CBS poll asked the following:

88. Do you think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

Yes 33% .... No 58% .... NK/NA 9%
One in three Americans still believe in a connection. I don't believe I know any of them personally ... leading me naturally to the question of the day: who the fuck are these people?

10 September 2007

Brava Britney

Dressed in sequined black underpants and bra, an out-of-shape Spears moved tentatively around the stage, getting totally outgrooved by her backup dancers and badly lip-syncing her way through the song whose main lyric was "Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme."
Out of shape? Yeah, they're all wishing they (or their fat wives) had your body. I'm gayer than your typical cabaletta, still I found your new look to be quite hot and strangely arousing. Your mesmerizing performance is yet another middle finger to the oppressive and intolerant pop/media literati. Brava. And don't you listen to them, I adore that "Gimme more" single-- it's so Madonna, fags love that.

06 September 2007


There were a number of opportunities to see Pavarotti in his later years at the Met, just when I picked up the habit of going to a gazillion evenings per season, but for various reasons things didn't align. Of course I had to be out of town during the week of the now-historic Licitra Tosca in 2002, which many thought would be his farewell to the city and to the house that loved him immensely. Reading about Licitra's last-minute rescue (via Concorde) and surprise success back then, I could sense the gloom in everyone's hearts that a proper farewell didn't come to pass. Two seasons later however, Pavarotti is put in the schedule for three Toscas, and I had two immediate thoughts: no way would I miss this, and no way will Pavarotti make it to any of them.

But he did. All three. And I was there for every one of them. The rest, as they say, is bitchy Opera-L history. Below are my sophomoric words from the pre-Sieglinde era. Bitchy and sophomoric, I repeat. This was what I said about the first of the three farewell evenings:

Still recovering from the trauma of Saturday's morbid Met Tosca, so I'll be brief. Declamation with a suggestion of tone is what passes as Pavarotti singing these days, which is entirely to be expected: his superior sense of the Italian style is still evident, but not enough to sustain a hint of life in his Cavaradossi. But what shocked me more was the current state of Carol Vaness' voice: I am absolutely appalled that this kind of singing is tolerated at all by the house. Pavarotti's wistful farewell circus is easy to stomach and somehow forgive, but what pained me Saturday was the unnecessary layer of torture added courtesy of Vaness, who made me do the unthinkable and actually wish for Sylvie Valayre, who at least had a working Vissi d'arte ...
I can't believe I wrote that. The weird thing about the internet is that it makes you think it's an ephemeral, always in-the-now thing, but it's really unforgivingly permanent. I'm still learning. Anyway, I don't know if I should apologize to Vaness or to Valayre ... 2004, three years ago, I was young(ish) back then ... and, to my defense, three years is equivalent to thirty blogger years.

Anyway, after the second evening, I wrote:
OK, so I didn't eBay off or scalp my family circle box ticket, and the thought of just throwing it away when record numbers turned out for the standing room line borders treason, and what else is there to do on a cold Wednesday evening ... Thankfully, things were a bit cleaner tonight (but with a twist at the end, which we'll get to in a bit): having proven Saturday that he can still wow an audience, Pavarotti tonight seemed much more at ease, filling his Act I love-in with Vaness with cute/scary little antics (groping and kissing his Tosca at every opportunity, winking at his adoring audience, violating the fourth wall, etc.), and musically more even (tonight he was at least trying). Even Vaness seemed to have mellowed as well ...
Still bitchy, but I'd like to think that I mellowed quite a bit too. Then, after the third and last evening, I had a lot to say, including the following:
The ovation after "E lucevan le stelle" lasted about three or four minutes, during which cameras flashed and some wall-banging ensued amidst thunderous bravos: all this touched Luciano so much that he picked up his glass of water and gestured a toast to the audience before taking a sip. During the curtain calls after each act, the stage was illuminated by thousands of flashbulbs, including ones from the orchestra pit, and so the next time an usher approaches you to remind you of the "official rules", direct them to their own orchestra members, who probably need a rules refresher themselves.

Reading recent weeks' posts in this list, with all the caustic vitriol directed towards our beloved Met singers (Fleming, Don Giovanni stars, etc.), one wonders if we even need casting directors to drain all passion and love from our beloved art when we do a good job of it ourselves. Then, nights like this last Tosca happen, which (while of dubious artistic merit) evince the humanity and enduring emotional legacy of opera despite its temporal nature, and which provide lovers of the art a venue to express their gratitude for those who sweat blood and bitter tears to indulge our petty enjoyment and pleasure. To me, Saturday served as a reminder to be even more generous to these artists who have achieved much more than we all could even imagine for ourselves.

Goodbye, Luciano!
Farewell, Pavarotti. I didn't hear you in your prime, and when I finally had a chance to hear you, I was excessively arrogant and immature. (I still am, folks, don't worry.) But I guess I managed to learn something from those three evenings. This morning, I had the TV on during The View, and the ladies had many things to say about you and your voice, icky cliches oozing from the dials. Then they played a clip of your visit to the show a few years back, and you were singing Ave Maria, and you transcended the cheesy set, the TV, the ordinary morning, this trivial world. I'm in awe of the natural beauty of your sound, and I wonder at the power of music when it comes from the heart.

05 September 2007

Sediziose voci

There's a Casta Diva sing-off happening on YouTube: twenty-two renditions of the aria for you to see, hear, and score, courtesy of one "coloraturafan". (Bummed that the cabaletta isn't included, but whatever, I'll live.) The range is quite spectacular, from quality (duh) to name recognition (Anait Mchitarian who?). I have my favorites, but I'm not saying, lest I doom them.

New Yorkers may be interested in hearing two clips in particular: Hasmik Papian's and Maria Guleghina's. Both ladies are scheduled to sing Norma at the Met in the fall. I saw Papian's Aida a couple of years ago, but didn't bother to enter a review here. All I remember now is a plain, smallish voice struggling to be heard. But Norma has a more forgiving orchestration; and if she still possesses the delicate contours of the voice as displayed in her Casta Diva clip (from 1999), she'll likely see some success.

USS Guleghina, quite the opposite, is a known quantity in these ports. Her Casta Diva entry is a pirate recording, and it's quite revealing. Because the capture is from a single vantage point with one distant microphone, you can get a sense of just how her big sound interacts/dominates/humbles the acoustic frame of the hall. She's more than loud: she seems to have tapped into the natural frequencies of wood and concrete, such that the entire auditorium resonates with her lungs at about 4.0 in the Richter scale. There're charming attempts to modulate dynamics, but the written crescendos always tend to push her voice back to its natural teradecibel setting. Listen to the extreme distortion of the recorded sound: indeed, she's the mortal enemy of cheap mics. (I know.) Lucky for her that a bona fide bel-cantist, Dolora Zajick, will be there too, so it won't be the all-out circus ... you and I are secretly hoping for.

Oh yes, our Anna Netrebko, always up for anything, is among the contestants. But she best watch her back, because these babes are gaining fast.

04 September 2007


Like Netrebko, Callas was a stage animal. But Callas also fetishised vocal technique and courted a mystique that was old-fashioned even in the 1960s. “But the whole younger generation of singers is different – thank God,” says Netrebko. “We’re younger, much more open, much more down to earth. And we don’t care so much about watching la voce.” Using the Italian for “the voice”, she mimics exactly the sort of obsessive regard for bel-canto manners that Callas exemplified.
It shows.

(And please, stop with the Callas thing already. Netrebko is the new Callas only in the same way that Britney Spears is the new Callas.)

03 September 2007

You can expect much higher quality spy pics from the old Met box this coming season, because ... Sieglinde has a new camera! (Thanks E & A! What a sweet gift.) I've been playing with it this holiday weekend, in Florida, land of truly majestic clouds. I could spend hours just watching the beautiful turbulence. This afternoon, a rainbow appeared after a brief thunderstorm.

Between the lines

Still, (Susan Graham) takes a dim view of the accusation (recently made by the tenor Endrik Wottrich) that singers are being forced into dependence on alcohol, steroids and beta blockers by overweening agents and overpowerful impresarios. “Nobody’s forced into anything,” she snorts, “it’s just that the demands are very high. I think I read recently that there’s already somebody on tap as ‘the new Anna Netrebko’ – Anna’s in her thirties, for God’s sake, we don’t need a new one. It’s ridiculous the kind of pop icons that marketing and record companies want to create.”
Left jab! Right hook! Knockout!

02 September 2007

Met season preview: more crap

As the lunatic heroine of Bellini's Puritani, (Anna Netrebko) lay prostrate and let her head with its cascade of black hair droop upside down into the orchestra pit as she sang some of the most dementedly difficult music ever written. She looked like an Ophelia about to drown herself in a river of sound.

'Was crazy, no?' she said, remembering this stunt. 'But felt good. Yes, was my idea. I agree to sing this opera, then open score and don't like, it's crap, I want to cancel. And Met production was so dull, stage director no help. I had to do something, so I get on floor. Is fun to be a mad person; you are free, you do what you like. Physically was easy for me, I was acrobat for five years.'
And then we spend money, go to Met opera and hear you and we don't like, is crazy, performance is crap, wish you cancel ... maybe you think Romeo crap too, you tell us, so we know to expect shit, no?
'Je veux vivre!' shrills Gounod's Juliette: here, in a variant of Violetta's outcry about liberty, is Netrebko's hedonistic mission statement. She shuddered, however, when I mentioned the aria. 'Is terrible, that piece! I am always singing sharp or cracking the high notes.
OK thanks for telling, now we see the Romeo and expect same crap too.