30 November 2007

No Norma

Renee Fleming has decided to ditch plans to perform Bellini's opera "Norma" because the role "just didn't fit," her publicist said.

"The part just didn't fit as she had hoped it would after living with it," Fleming publicist Mary Lou Falcone said Thursday. "Sometimes you can sing it through, sing it through perfectly, it's not a problem. But I think that she lived with it and realized that when you infuse it with the drama and everything else that goes with it, it just wasn't the best choice for her."
Sad day for Sieglinde, but hope remains. With the kind of vocal fitness she's nurtured in the last decade, Sieglinde sees another full decade of peak Fleming. Sieglinde still believes that caution may have to give way to challenge, if she is to approach the highest pantheon of operatic legend. So it may still happen, people. But the reverence with which she has treated the supreme role of Norma is admirable, and itself worthy of worship. With every other divette singing every other role these days, it's remarkable to now find a Diva withdraw, at the height of her vocal health and influence, from a role that she ostensibly can sing, and sing better than any other active soprano of this generation. Brava diva.

(Fellow Fleming flappers, be sure to pepper the discussion developing at parterre with positive vibes.)

28 November 2007

Latest word from Irminsul

Khaleem, opera maven and part-time sleuth, awoke Sieglinde early this morning with depressing news. Amidst the thick program notes for this weekend's BSO concerts, he and his cohorts found the jarring announcement, half-hidden in Renée Fleming's bio:

This August at Tanglewood, Ms. Fleming will sing the role of Tatiana opposite Ramón Vargas's Lensky and Peter Mattei's Onegin in a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin with James Levine conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.
If you haven't dropped your laptop yet in utter despair and aren't wailing in the hallways or else searching for an instrument sharp enough to cut flesh, let me explain: Tatiana = wait, where's the Norma = Norma dropped? = Norma f*ckin dropped! = ok now proceed to searching for the sharp instrument.

We at Sieglinde's Diaries are hoping that she's only postponing the Norma, as she masterfully did with the Violetta earlier in her career. We've been following this thread from the very beginning, and wouldn't it just suck turnips if it all ended as a footnote. Yes, anyone who dares assume the role of Norma will be automatically filleted (Callas included, if she were to rise from the dead today); but Renée Fleming, we (still) believe, is the one artist that could triumph in the role amidst utmost expectations. However, she's also a cautious artist, unwilling to commit if she's not confident of victory. Bummer, huh.

Our vigil for the Fleming Norma recommences.

27 November 2007

Whatever it was, it wasn't Norma

Yet I wet myself a few times during the opera just the same.

(So sorry, I've been occupied with other things lately. But still I made it to the season's last Papian Norma Friday, the Saturday matinee Zauberfloete, and then certainly last evening's--vulgar is too cordial a word--performance. Things I'll come around to blogging if I can't sleep one of these nights. Meanwhile, if you need further proof that hate comes from the same substance as love, I suggest attending one of these Guleghina Big Apple Circuses. )

21 November 2007

15 November 2007

Sieglinde's Traum

Wonderful news from the backstage of the Met has just reached Sieglinde's inbox! We've been informed that, in her dressing room after a stupendous Traviata last Saturday (which I attended, and would have gushed excessively about already, if not for that Druid priestess hogging the spotlight), Renee Fleming told her fans that she is preparing (still under negotiation?) to record an album of Strauss and Wagner arias, possibly with Maestro Christian Thielemann (!). Perhaps not trusting her ears, one fan asked "Strauss songs?" to which Renee replied "Not songs. BIG arias!" (Big? BIG! Big big? BIG BIG!)

Not songs. BIG arias! Implying of course those beloved arias and scenes she's likely not essaying on stage in this lifetime. Isn't this exciting? "The Beautiful Voice: Big, Big, BIG Strauss and Wagner Edition." Thus in a fit of gassy inspiration (with much gratitude to a lunch of split pea soup), Sieglinde provides below, totally free of charge, the track listing of Renee's next Grammy Award winning CD, as she imagines it. (Decca, take note.)

1. "Zweite brautnacht!" (Helena)
2. "Ist mein Liebster dahin" (FroSch)
3. Empress' Awakening Scene (FroSch)
4. Recognition Scene (Elektra)
5. Salome Final Scene

6. Senta's Ballad (Hollander)
7. "Du bist der Lenz" (Walküre)
8. Elsa's Dream (Lohengrin)
9. Isolde's Narrative and Curse
10. Isolde's Liebestod

14 November 2007

The missing Norma

Sieglinde's been obsessed with Norma since way before she met Hunding. The opera's mythic status in the pantheon of great musical works; a lead who is asked to essentially sing across widely divergent vocal styles (and bake and garden and clean your house too!); a lead who has to withstand withering comparison with the pantheon of past singers who did no wrong; Callas, Callas, Callas; absolutely ravishing duets, contained within a score of unimaginable imagination; its relative rarity of performance. In view of the last point, La Cieca asks for which star this current revival of Norma at the Met was originally intended.

I vaguely remember the time when the first indications of a possible Norma revival were floated in various Met bathrooms. Around the time I began this blog, it's likely that I saw it on Brad Wilber's Sublime Met Futures List (which, by the way, has just been updated, so I suggest you take this afternoon off to mull over your 2008-12 opera schedule). A slot for Norma for the 2007-08 season! It was a mysterious item in the list, if memory serves, for as time passed it remained largely uncast, while the other operas became progressively populated by singers and boobs. Only Maria Guleghina's website (March 2005) claimed to know who was singing the title role-- an odd circumstance, to say the least. I then started thinking that perhaps the slot was being held for Met diva Renee Fleming, that perhaps Renee, in a sugar rush, floated the idea to a summer intern (I imagine at some afternoon office birthday party, right by the Krispy Kreme donuts and the leftover bagels, while pouring powdered creamer in her coffee) and as talk spread, became a viable possibility. In this scenario, it made sense that the opera remained uncast, for no matter how late in the ballgame, once a star soprano jumps on board the Norma, it's relatively simple to put together her backup singers, not to mention the convenience of having a production that can fit into three of Montsy's suitcases.

So Sieglinde fantasized about possible Norma-Adalgisa tandems (Sept. 2005), while she sent her surrogates to whisper into Renee's ears the vision of her grand ascent to the pantheon as Sieglinde imagines it. (OK, in truth, I asked my friends to utter "Norma" while she signed their programs.) Then, Renee acknowledged the clamor in an interview with Rupert Christiansen (Nov. 2005), and Sieglinde went full force in her campaign. (Which was, uhm, basically sending the same three people to do the same thing every single time they see Renee backstage. Don't knock this strategy-- "shock and awe" don't always work.) Anyway, Sieglinde likes to fantasize.

Dreams do come true, as one Orlando Denny's waitress told me once during her cigarette break. But dreams, like fiber in the digestive system, sometimes take their sweet time. And Renee Fleming, true to form, doesn't just plunge into a role at the Met without first trying it out in the backwater, so the 2007 Norma remained an enigma. In October 2006, La Cieca interrupted regular programming to puke and bring news of signed contracts for Renee's first Norma (in Zurich), and then months after, Renee herself revealed her commitment to singing it in our country 'tis of thee (in Tanglewood specifically), adding "It's a huge risk. But, what? I should never take a risk?" Damn right, bitches. Risk? She eats it for breakfast, with Yoplait. Once Peter Gelb saw a $en$ation in the making, the avalanche is complete.

But lost somewhere were the calculations made for the Norma revival for the 2007-08 season. It seemed everyone forgot that it remained on the list--for the reason Sieglinde cooks up here, or another--well, everyone except Maria Guleghina, who'd eagerly trample anyone in her way. So it remained. A shakeup of the overlapping Macbeth cast gave Guleghina a second assignment, necessitating an alternate singer for the Norma, and this, mes amis, is how we got the world-touring priestess of Hasmik Papian.

In any case, however it unfolds, we are still very much united in wishing that the Fleming Norma come to fruition at the Met. I'm certain the anti-Fleming cabal has already written their reviews before the first "sediziose" is even uttered, so they're also aching to lunge and devour. It is thus displeasing that rumors of Renee rethinking the decision have come up recently. It only underlines the magnitude of the risk. And what a supreme risk indeed, even for an accomplished diva of unmatched technical abilities and in the prime of her already historic career.


Anne Midgette's NYT review of the Met Norma prima is structured, I reckon, around a false dichotomy. I am baffled by her comparison between the performance of one Norma and her handmaiden Adalgisa. Bellini wrote maybe twice the number of bars of music for his Norma; moreover, if it can also be measured, a magnitude wider dramatic range. Midgette herself describes Hasmik Papian's heroic outing on Monday as evoking "an athlete hurling herself repeatedly at the high-jump bar, sometimes dislodging it, sometimes propelling herself over with only micrometers to spare, her whole body wiggling in time to her coloratura." Thus an artist taking on the role of Norma ("one of the toughest in the repertory") assumes a nearly impossible burden: so is it conceivable that perhaps a singer of Dolora Zajick's talents, however vast, may not be able to shine as excellently as Norma as she could as Adalgisa? Apples to oranges; or more accurately, watermelons to champagne grapes. Everyone (including myself) is understandably hysterical about Zajick's brilliant Adalgisa, but let's also be fair to Papian. While I admire Midgette's vigilance, this particular case is not about "opera is drama" vs. "opera is music" at all. (For better examples, might I suggest looking into the careers of singers with prominent boobs and words of impresarios who see dollar signs for tits.)

13 November 2007

Mira the Norma

Bellini NORMA, Met 12.XI.2007; c. Benini; Papian, Zajick, Farina, Kowalkow.

Two requirements of the role of Norma that very few singers, past and present, could clear: (a) extreme range of vocal ability-- from halcyon lyricism in scale phrases, to unblemished florid coloratura for killer cabalettas, to theatrical declamatory outbursts in recitatives; and (b) superhuman stamina to do the first requirement ALL F*CKING EVENING. And we're not even getting to the inordinate emotional and dramatic demands on the soprano to make it all work on stage. Line up live renditions (no stitched up studio recordings please) of Norma's entrance cavatina--from the "Sediziose voci" to the "Casta Diva" pasta commercial to the deceptively simple cabaletta "Ah! bello a me ritorno"--to see that very few excel evenly through the three sonic faces of Norma. Then, doing this all evening long would surely defeat whoever's left standing. Thus it's a major miracle to have the likes of Callas and Caballe audaciously make this role a career calling card. In such a playing field, one can take two viewpoints: (1) think everyone's a failure, and critique to shreds anyone stupid enough to attempt the role; or (2) think everyone's a failure, forgive wistfully and move on. Hasmik Papian presents a joyous challenge to these two viewpoints. She delivers a more than credible Norma that one is apt to analyze her performance to the molecular level to find the misplaced hydrogen bond; while on the other hand, a more than creditable Norma is a cause for bliss, and to hell with the misplaced hydrogen bond.

If she were to come to my apartment and sing this role in my bathroom, she'd have sung this role everywhere. Well, not exactly, but I suspect that by the end of her career she'd have sung it wherever there's a room full of people. And she ought to. Foremost, she has extraterrestrial stamina. She regaled us with "Ah padre! un prego ancor", Norma's last hurdle, as she had begun the evening-- with freshness and nuance, gamely taking long and leaping phrases in single breaths. Throughout the marathon she was fearless in the florid passages, steady and calm in the pianissimi, and vicious in the explosive moments like "Guerra, strage, sterminio!", which surely roused the morale of her troops, not to mention some of my bodily organs. I don't remember much of the Aida she did for her debut at the Met a few years ago, except that I thought hers was a smallish voice of unimaginative qualities. The transformation can't be any starker-- in this Norma she exhibits total involvement, above par control, and "measured abandon", of an interesting voice that has substantial cut and ping. Surrounding her is an embarrassing production, possibly the cheapest production the Met has ever staged (sadder if it isn't), but which does one thing well: the polished raked stage is absolutely sound reflective, propelling any voice out to all corners of the auditorium. So Papian was helped by the stage physics, but I imagine she has also continued to build more power into her voice, while still retaining the beauty and brilliance of her top notes, in piano as well as in forte.

Papian's range is stunning indeed. To stand beside a singing Dolora Zajick and still be noticed is worthy of highest praise. Papian matched Zajick's stealthy vocal weapons with sure poise: messa di voce for messa di voce, high C diminuendo for high C diminuendo, luxuriant tone for luxuriant tone. While some of the rapidfire coloratura was smudged slightly (quibbling!), there was hardly a missed note, this while still addressing every crevice of the fantastic emotional dimensions of the role. I also like the slightly distressed quality that settles into her voice at times, to me suggesting her character's humanity and, paradoxically, femininity.

Zajick is formidable in any role, but especially as Adalgisa. With her boundless talents, her sopranic top, her bel canto bel canto, her authentic piano singing, she ought to try the Norma too. Seriously. Zajick as Norma, and Stephanie Blythe as Adalgisa-- wouldn't that totally blow your mind's nut. Meanwhile, Franco Farina is experiencing some sort of a minor renaissance. He improved vastly in the Aidas just concluded, and now, as Pollione, he is determined to not be the ugliest voice on stage. The wobble notwithstanding, his voice was sufficiently pliant, delivering some surprising pianos and sensitive phrases, while still remaining male. Vitalij Kowalkow, the Oroveso, continues to impress New York with his rich dark chocolate bass. James Levine, who led a Wagnerian Lucia early this season, should take lessons with Maestro Maurizio Benini in delivering a no-frills bel canto opera with still a lot of excitement and verve.

12 November 2007

A rare outing

Barber VANESSA, NYCO 10.XI.2007; c. Manson; Flanigan, Goeldner, MacPherson, Elias, Stilwell.

I made it to the Vanessa. It's a freaky piece, eerie New England goth brimming in the text and music; the singers, all brilliant in their respective roles, took to embody Barber's intentions fully. Lauren Flanigan powered her way through Vanessa's jagged lines with much excitement and undeniable commitment. However, it was partly a waste of metaphysical energy, for sadly Barber's title role withdraws from the drama after the pivotal Act I scene when Anatol arrives. Thus after anguishing for 20 years, Vanessa finds some happiness in Junior, becomes oddly clueless and a little naive, and what doubt that could have texturized her character was visited only tangentially by the narrative. Thus no matter how charismatic the soprano, the role of Vanessa is a bore, and Maria Callas was correct to refuse the offer to premiere it. If Barber and Menotti only took that rejection as a signal to revise-- perhaps to write in a wrenching ending aria for her, to reveal what she really thought about her uncertain fate, to explicitly name her doubts, but then to also conclude that this is preferrable to the 20-year vigil that she suffered, and that Erika was preparing to do. Whatever-- Vanessa could have been a more complicated and sympathetic character if something else was written for her in the last scene. (Of course, the haunting quintet in Act III, Scene 2 suggests her eventual fate, but why only suggest when you could have a wistful aria for soprano to embody an immense longing?) Instead, Vanessa has this powerful "He has come!" aria within minutes of the curtain--which Flanigan milked till the cows came home milkless--and then quickly drops behind the character of Erika, who then sustains the tension throughout the rest of the opera.

Regarding the other singers: as Erika, Katharine Goeldner sang with much poise, with a lyric mezzo that can open up and soar with no effort, but with an alluring dark edge that shaded her music perfectly. Ryan MacPherson sang and played Anatol with correct ambiguity, at times as a youth lost in love, at times as a cunning opportunist. The Doctor, Richard Stilwell sang with a lot of elegance and poignancy, surely grabbing the spotlight when it was close by. Rosalind Elias looked so old and stately, her presence on stage was enough. But she has a handful of lines, which she delivered with a faltering, but august voice. An how wonderful it was to see a woman at the podium: Maestra Anne Manson's reading is measured, appropriately restrained, never excessively melodramatic or dark. The entire cast, the orchestra, the conductor, even the sets, could all be transported to the Met as is, and this revival wouldn't look out of place at all. It's that good.

11 November 2007

10 November 2007

Preferable to writing an NIH grant proposal

Verdi AIDA, Met 8.XI.2007; c. Ono; Brown, D'Intino, Farina, Delavan, Kowalkow.

I'm sneaking in this post--in the midst of absolute chaos in my work--the same way I snuck in the Aida a couple of evenings ago just to hear the Amneris of Luciana D'Intino, who only three seasons ago debuted at the Met with a phenomenal Eboli despite already enjoying a full career across the Atlantic. It was a strange evening. D'Intino's cabernet mezzo billowed, powered by what seemed to be a team of four or five distinct singers hiding in her Amneris costume. She ain't a big girl (in the traditional manner), so I can't be sure where they were hiding. For instance, her top notes, genuine and attractive, had the security that Angela Brown could only dream of. Her middle range was typical; proceeding lower still, I heard what must have been three general kinds of chest tones: a normal soprano chest (the one that disappears as it descends down the scale); a chest in the speaking mode (a la Broadway); and a gigantic mother-in-law chest (the Zajickian kind that takes the opera to an entirely different, lavatory direction--which we queens enjoy). The luck of the draw, I suppose, was what determined which sound would materialize for a given phrase. I didn't mind that her register breaks were as definitive as the US-Mexico border. It made for a totally fun and interesting evening. (A question to the oldtimers who are all hailing D'Intino as Simionato's second coming: was Simionato that bad?)

This was also my first Angela Brown this season. Aside from the tragic sinking in the high C, she did a nice job with the Aida. Apparently (according to friends who have seen many more Aidas this season than toes in your left foot--don't ask me why) she was horrid in her first couple of outings, but has since improved measureably to deliver her best yet. If it's a case of illness, then she ought to be given a second (or third) chance, but I suspect it's more than that. The consistent fraying of her voice in the upper registers is alarming. Should she pull back now and undergo some vocal bootcamp, before it's too late? Brown has a gorgeous, multifaceted voice, warm and endearing, full of character and charisma, so to hear her fail miserably in the fundamentals is saddening. Even Maestro Kazushi Ono and his orchestra surprised me, making me sound like a big liar in my earlier review-- because he led a vigorous, vivid reading of the score, with exciting dynamics and total synchronicity with the singers. Many reasons for the discrepancy, some of which include: (a) a different set of principals, this time more immersed in the drama; (b) the last evening of the run, when everything pretty much gels nicely; (c) Sieglinde is just full of BS. All of the above? I report, you decide.

Back to work for me. (But I have a Vanessa ticket for this afternoon, so there lies the quandary: to rid the world of disease, or to go see Lauren Flanigan? Stay tuned.)

08 November 2007

No equal

Verdi LA TRAVIATA, Met 07.XI.2007; c. Armiliato; Fleming, Polenzani, Croft.

Busy, busy busy ... but finally I found myself back again at the opera house, in time to take in possibly Renee Fleming's greatest operatic achievement to date. Her Violetta, a grand display of all the carats in her voice, is also very disciplined and painfully thorough. Her sterling voice and mature stage deportment come out to you in brilliant technicolor spectra, this time amidst unremarkable backdrop: Matthew Polenzani, whose sweet and open top notes regrettably come with a middle register of dull and uncultivated quality, and who acts like he's trying really hard to act; Dwayne Croft, who should thank his wig's grey streaks for making him appear more imposing than his voice suggests; Maestro Marco Armiliato, who didn't carry a score to the podium, instead taking his cues from his singers' dual gluttony for meandering tempi and for excessive fermatas, tawdry pedestals meant only to shamelessly exhibit vocal jewels. Thus everyone was in complete agreement that the evening was all about Renee Fleming, and if that's the case, I thought, well, so be it-- let us receive the grace in full, be joyful and glad ... Oh how she handled Violetta's multifarious vocal and dramatic challenges with equal command! Her coloratura, always brilliantly executed, was also less mannered this time around. Her ravishing lyric, spun with the most delicate gestures, choked me up in "Dite alla giovine" and "Alfredo di questo core". Her spinto, in places like "Gran Dio! morir si giovane", which she let out in terrifying fortissimo and in a single f*cking breath (!), pushed me to the precipice. This is a supreme achievement, indeed. There is simply no question in Sieglinde's mind that (a) she owns this touchstone role, (b) by all accounts she appears to still possess the capacity to churn out such Violetta perfection for many years to come (so dropping it from her rep, as reported, is mystifying), and (c) her voice, contrary to her clamorous naysayers (you know who you are), is just getting better and better. The last part is especially thrilling, for she has plans to bring new things to New York in the coming seasons: her Thais (already a success elsewhere), her Armida (cf. the Sony recording, orgasmic but from a performance from the last ice age), her capricious Countess, perhaps (if chatter is to be believed) only postponing her Norma for a later time-- indeed, with this fine porcelain betraying absolutely no crazing, she can afford to take her time.

[An apology: You know how Sieglinde can just go on and on about Renee, but I'm terribly busy these days, with grant proposals to write and manuscripts to finish. Also, I'm seeing more of this Traviata--are you kidding--so there shall be more opportunity to dissect and worship.]

05 November 2007

View from center parterre

I'm just catching up with the pile of fall New Yorker issues growing by the nightstand. One item that caught my attention this weekend: from three weeks ago, a feature on Peter Gelb morphed, in my mind, into a more curious mini-feature on Mercedes Bass, New York socialite and key Met patron. Since the entire article is not (yet?) available online, I have included quotes below, which should establish just how utterly ___* this powerful woman is.

"Opera is somewhat of an acquired taste, and it is very time consuming--you need to have three or four hours to devote to it. And then, to a certain degree you have to have the finances. I am very aware that for a couple to go to the opera, it means basically a hairdresser, a babysitter, a taxi or car, dinner on the Grand Tier. All of that mount up to being sort of an expensive evening."
Regarding the multiplex simulcasts, she notes:
"When the camera is too much in the mouth of the singers, it bothers me. I think it is unflattering for the artist. I don't think we need to look down their throats. Even if you are in the front row of the Met, you don't see that."
On productions:
"One of my first major conversations I had with Peter was to say, please, don't get rid of the old Zeffirelli productions. My example was that one cannot appreciate contemporary or modern art if you don't begin with the 'Mona Lisa' or the Old Masters. Zeffirelli productions are mind-boggling, and I will go to all of them, and when I hear the audience gasp in the second act of Tosca, or in Boheme, that, to me, is the experience of going to the opera."
(Apparently she asked Gelb if it were possible to mount a Zeffirelli marathon, to which Gelb responded "it is possible.") On repertory:
"I don't think I'm going to see (Janáček's From the House of the Dead), frankly. Peter Grimes is another one. There are certain operas I can live without. But that's all right. There are other audiences that will love them."

*fill in at your own risk

04 November 2007

Clear majority

Question 31 of the poll just released by ABC News/Washington Post:

Do you think homosexual couples should or should not be allowed to form legally recognized civil unions, giving them the legal rights of married couples in areas such as health insurance, inheritance and pension coverage?
         Should   Should not   No opinion         
11/1/07 55 42 3
6/4/06 45 48 7
3/7/04 51 46 3
2/22/04 45 48 7
1/18/04 46 51 4
9/7/03 40 51 9

01 November 2007

Village freak show

Last night I went to see the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. There were hags and witches (or were they just homeless), guys in military gear (or were they just dikes), lots of fake blood (or real), men wearing fake crowns (sad), ghostly apparitions of the freshly dead out to ruin parties, your usual Village fare. Scariest shit was this one drag queen bearing/baring large boobie implants and enormous manfeet, who rose from the black asphalt of Bleecker Street to trample them all. She had this depraved gaze, like she's hungry for bartenders, or for chicken fingers and can't wait another moment. She wouldn't just kill you with one stab, she'd have sex with you, then chew off flesh around key arteries and wash herself with the warm blood gushing out of you. She'd even kill any aria in her path-- no, wait: she'd first waterboard it, and see what happens. Cabalettas, forget it. They're just little notes written by foreign men with tiny penises. She didn't say that exactly, but this is the sense I got.

Risking life and limb, Sieglinde did what she's paid for, walking away with a few pictures (along with sweet memories of savaged fioriture). Here she is, Maria Guleghina, carnal and unbroken, ready to jump off the stage and chop the head off anyone daring to talk shit about her.