26 November 2022

Unwarranted condescension

Zachary Woolfe's account of the premiere night of The Hours for the New York Times is ungenerous and petty. It opens with an unsubtle swipe at soprano Renée Fleming:

“The Hours” — a new opera based on the 1998 novel and the 2002 film it inspired — features a redoubtable trio of prima donnas. And it was conceived as a vehicle for one of them, the soprano Renée Fleming, who is using it as her return to the Metropolitan Opera after five years.

But on Tuesday, when the Met gave “The Hours” its staged premiere, only one of this trio of stars really shone: the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, sounding as confident and fresh, as sonorous and subtle, as she ever has in this theater.
If his application of the word "using" suggests a whiff of desperation on Fleming's part, his direct comparison with Joyce DiDonato, who is currently relishing the height of her career, makes sure you get the message. You'd have to read through a lot of twaddle to understand what was wrong with Renée's performance:
The poignancy of the plot is amplified by Fleming, who has returned to the Met’s stage sounding pale: not frail or ugly, but at first almost inaudible and by the end underpowered, a pencil sketch of her former plushness. Having bid farewell to the standard repertory, this diva never wanted to age into opera’s supporting mother characters, and she has the influence to commission works like this, in which she can still be cast as the lead.

But just as Clarissa Vaughan throbs with nostalgia for her life a few decades before, so we listen to Fleming at this point in her career and hear, deep in our ears, her supreme nights in this theater in the 1990s and early 2000s: as Mozart’s Countess, Verdi’s Desdemona, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana.
It is curious that Woolfe, who only this year became the New York Times's chief classical music critic, and who, prior to 2009 had not written anything of substance about music performance in New York, would talk about "supreme nights" in the 1990s and early 2000s, as if (a) he had been to all those performances, and (b) any other Fleming nights after the early 2000s were somehow less than supreme, hinting at a noticeable decline. Was he really there in the auditorium for her farewell to the Met stage as the Marchallin just five years ago? Someone else was sent to review it for the paper--Anthony Tommasini, a gentleman who approached artists with respect and measured his words with a long perspective. And someone else was sent to cover her final performance and thunderous, confetti-laden ovation that ensued. For Woolfe to highlight those years, which were a quarter century ago, as prescribed markers from which to judge a lyric soprano voice in 2022 is cruel and unkind. We all know this year's Fleming ain't the 1995 or the 2000 vintage; does it add anything to then conclude from this a failing, even a defeat, in the guise of borrowed nostalgia? Appraising Fleming to be "a pencil sketch of her former plushness" dismisses any value older vocal artists can contribute to the art form. And it's also not true--I can say this after seeing two consecutive evenings of the The Hours, from the same seat I've occupied throughout the two decades she's sung for me. (She is back in opulent resplendence, if you ask me.) We should mention as well that Fleming's contribution to this stage continued to flourish after the mid-2000's, with a spate of thrilling Rodelinda's (do you remember those magical evenings, Dear Zach?), sumptuous Rusalka's and Thaïs's, and ravishing Violetta's, not to mention the daring Armida's and the truly magnificent Gräfin's (in Capriccio). I'd be very impressed if Woolfe was there for even a handful of those evenings.

How many new operas come to the Met stage these days? When its not talking trash about Fleming, Woolfe's review amounts to a pile of catty commentary about the music and the production like he's griping about a repertory piece, with barely an acknowledgement of the sheer constellation of effort and genius to put together such a complex new work and launch it from opera's grandest stage. I guess he feels compelled to say something smart about the music, but the pettiness surfaces when proportions miss. If I may, I'd suggest Woolfe get a blog instead, where he can whine like Sieglinde, rot at a more appropriate level, while assembling a safe space for fellow DiDonato groupies. Who knows, we may yet join and revel in that trivial hobby.

Note: we shall issue our personal take on these proceedings in a few days, after attending another performance or two.

23 November 2022

Opera high

And you thought we would miss this? Jesus yes, we were all there last night to say "hello" and "where the f* you been" to Sieglinde's old friend Renéééééée. In a word, orgasmic. Full details later when we are able to talk beyond hyperbole.

In the meantime, we leave you with this blind item, from none other than our venerable rag, that may explain a few things:
Smoke shops are not the only places that have popped up selling cannabis. State regulators have also cited a tattoo parlor, an opera house and a beauty salon.
Anyone know which beauty salon they're referring to? DMs will be much appreciated.

11 November 2022


But of course we were at this season's opening night at the Met. Sieglinde has been a stalwart of our diva Sondra Radvanovsky since we've heard her as Serving Woman in Elektra in the late 1990s, back in the day when Gabriele Schnaut, in the title role, molested our eardrums with daggers while Deborah Voigt, a hefty Chrysothemis, soothed the pain with cream. (Oh those were the days of yore ...) OK, we jest: you don't care about Serving Women, and neither do we. Anyway, Sondra quietly rose through other minor roles, through Musetta, and then to Luisa Miller, her first serious top bill which we scarcely remember because the opera itself is (don't hate us!) a snoozefest.

Her Leonora in Il Trovatore in 2000 (more than two decades ago!) marked a turn towards stardom. Those performances predate these Diaries so we can't provide blow-by-blow details, but what we remember was a house-filling lachrymose voice, veiled grey if a bit monochromatic, but oozing with mournful distress that was resolutely devastating in those "Ah! Le pene" wails in Act IV. We marvelled at how a thick sound could scale those high notes with bel canto precision; and oh, we were thrilled to have heard, dare we even say, the sonic shadow of La Divina herself.

Next was I Vespri Siciliani in 2004, right around when these Diaries were born. We blogged those performances heavily. After one particular performance in November, 2004, we thus declared:
One isn't being unreasonable to suggest (gasp) Callas in describing the over-all affect of Sondra Radvanovsky's voice; indeed, both voices bear the dark veil of quiet suffering whatever the aria or context. Radvanovsky's instrument has grown a shade darker since her Trovatore Leonoras a couple of years ago, and has become significantly more flexible, but has thankfully lost none of its staggering volume. Last night she used the default emotion intrinsic to her instrument to produce a most heartrending "Arrigo! ah parli ad un core," and with such talent she is assured to be remembered by this generation of fans.
Anyway, she's a young soprano with a young career, and the vocal development I have noticed the past couple of years signifies to me that she's headed in the right direction. To be compared to our favorite divas at this point in her life is true testament to her enormous talent and potential. Already she has defied the American curse by nurturing a distinct voice with personality and edge; now in order to succeed in this kind of repertory, she has only to delve deeper into the Latin aspect of her soul: i.e., show emotion beyond the dark veil, and please apply the chest!
What came next were the Don Carlo's in 2005. We cannot tell you why these Diaries were mostly silent about those performances. We surely attended at least a couple of evenings, but are surprised to retrieve only naked passing references to what appeared to be tumultuous evenings. WTF, right? (We do remember that around the same time, Maria Guleghina (oceanliner, skyscraper, continent) was defying physics as Abigaille, so that could have possibly diverted our attention.)

Sondra then went through a spate of Verdi's in the late aughts, which these Diaries somehow skipped. Only when her Tosca's were presented did the Diaries take note, as in this post from January, 2011:
The throbbing, relentlessly lachrymose and sonically gifted soprano of Sondra Radvanovsky enters a new dimension. She probably vaporized many in-house recordings and shattered hidden microphones tonight, with the sheer gigabigness of her top notes and that characteristic, mechanical vibrato. But the good news is that she's finally using some chest tones! Not a lot, not as big, and not consistently, but they were there when it mattered ...
The mid-2010's was a difficult period for Sieglinde so much so that (gasp!) she missed Sondra's historic Three Donizetti Queens entirely. (Sieglinde also stopped blogging around that time.) If we could get a hold of a time machine, this may be one temporal destination. Sieglinde shall speak about these dark years when the time is right. However, neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep her from seeing any Norma, especially one which promises to rearrange the Pantheon. If these Diaries were still active around that time, it would have exploded in excessive worship. Sondra reached a pinnacle, her voice a physical force, a sure contrast to a series of flawed Norma's, beginning in 2001 (Jane Eaglen, Hasmik Papian, Maria Guleghina) after being absent from the repertory for a generation. And we must mention that Joyce DiDonato, as Adalgisa, exceeded all expectations and demonstrated supreme virtuosity despite an unmemorable sound.

Which brings us to this season's Medea. Even if you're not paying attention till now, you can't deny that this stunt automatically invites direct comparison to Callas (the true reason Medea hasn't been performed at the Met till this year). Regardless, our girl can do the role with the kind of pathos and fury that stirs opera queens out of their seats and throw confetti. Maestro Carlo Rizzi knows how to drive an Italian work on overdrive, and he surely maneuvered a vibrant evening of intense melodramatic singing from all the principals, including tenor Matthew Polenzani, a fellow American old-timer at the Met.

Sieglinde was deeply moved, for sure. Yet one question interrupts this predictable storyline--why did we only see the prima? Why didn't we go back for more? What was missing? Was there too much of Callas in this whole endeavor and in the face of Sondra's voice that she must inevitably be discarded as plastic imitation? Where was the delirium? Is Sieglinde's stupor just a sign of old age? Sondra is scheduled to bulldoze New York with Turandot next season. Let's see how those performances lay waste to these trivial, pointless musings.

04 November 2022

This Don Carlo can fit in two CDs

Verdi DON CARLO, 03.11.22; c. Rizzi; Thomas, Buratto, Matochkina, Mattei, Groissböck, Relyea.

I’ve gone to many, many evenings at the Met and elsewhere in the past decade (and we’ll get to those as winter approaches), but why not reignite these Diaries with last night’s relentlessly bombastic Don Carlo, featuring Maestro Carlo Rizzi, who doesn’t think this opera should be any longer than a Puccini evening. First question—as the four-act Italian version of Don Carlo is already a dark and gloomy affair without the Fontainebleau preface, do we really need David McVicar to lead us down to another one of his recycled crypts? Meanwhile, the stars of the evening were the boys! Günther Groissböck as Filippo, dashing and unexpectedly sympathetic, and Peter Mattei as Posa, as bright and unblemished a best friend/secret lover as you’ll ever want in your Royal Court. John Relyea’s Il Grande Inquisitore is forever a thrill, his scene with Groissböck a satisfying belch after three pints of Guinness. Russell Thomas as Don Carlo was pushed to the degree you’d want, tortured and anguished till the end. But how about the girls? First time I’m hearing Eleonora Buratto: as Elisabetta, I detected fleeting shades of Barbara Frittoli, but her sound is much too accomplished and studied, therefore faceless. What Anna Netrebko would have done with this thankless role, we New Yorkers may never know. Yulia Matochkina kinda understood the assignment, but, sorry for being that old fart, couldn’t her Eboli be more perverse and worrying? Of course, subbing for Anita Rachvselishvili, so reeking of “golden age”, is one hopeless errand.

03 November 2022

The Empress Awakens

How does one reboot a love affair? Time moves on, passions no longer boil so corrosively, accumulated memories temper the heart’s natural inclinations, their surplus pieces gathered and reconsidered, with compassion; the senses practiced, knees and muscle folding discretely into a dormant equilibrium. Yet there is still that low hunger, no longer urgent but deeper, as the days grow shorter and more predictable. Where is this all taking us, and what is left for us to touch? You are at once familiar and indistinguishable: do I know what you will say next, or will there be another kind of revelation that will jolt my accounted bones?