Sunday, August 24, 2014

Goerke Park

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Licia Albanese: A Small Tribute to a Legend

Licia Albanese has died. It was inevitable, yet still somehow unexpected, as though she would live forever. I had always been a moderate fan of this lady's, but some years ago I heard a performance I'd previously only heard about, the 1956 Manon Lescaut broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera featuring Albanese & Bjoerling in the leading roles, with Dimitri Mitropolous at the helm. I'm here putting down the notes I made from that experience.

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My jaw still hasn’t recovered from hitting the floor. How crazy was this performance??!! It was completely insane.

Albanese sounded a thousand years old - yet really, really hot . . . juicy, even. And her high notes? They blasted out like velvet bullets. Whenever someone speaks about how to "act with the voice" - Albanese is PRECISELY what they're talking about. The emotive skills of both of these singers, is mind boggling . . . huge. Of course I knew this already from their studio recording, and though I’d always heard of this '56 performance, and white hot” it was, I had no idea . . . no idea.

Both Jussi and Licia give such over the top performances that if they were singing these roles today, some would (sadly) laugh at the hysterical, over-emotive “in your face” performances. Then again, maybe not, when the actual singing is of this high quality. Bjoerling’s performance here tops his studio effort for the fact you get the sense he really is living the role. And his top notes (low notes . . . and all notes in between) are spun out with such vocal glory that not only are his excesses forgivable, they’re necessary . . . welcome and thrilling.

Sadly the orchestra (under my man Mitropolous) often sounds bad, undernourished and under rehearsed, and I have to put it on the conductor as I’ve heard the orchestra from that season sound quite fine. (Nobody shoot me please, I can't believe I'm saying that about a man I consider a god). But D.M. pays wonderful attention to his singers and that pay off was worth its weight in gold.

Albanese’s Sola perduta, abbandonata was one of the wildest versions of any aria I’ve ever heard – certainly of this aria, and I mean by about 1000 percent. Shrieking and sobbing and shouting and sobbing and gasping (and sobbing some more) sometimes, remarkably, in the middle of the notes of a phrase. Who else could do this like her? Sometimes she seems even to do this in the middle of a note – it’s madness . . . pure FILTH! Delicious filth. And the notes . . . Oh. My. God. Simply unbelievable. She hurls them out with such force I believe they were very likely heard on Mars. I had to both laugh and cry as she finished the aria punctuated with sobs as continued repeating the aria’s final lines, sobbing and choking out "non voglio morir . . . no voglio morir" over and over, before more sobs, shrieks as a hysterical Jussi returns, joining in the madness.

The closing few minutes were intense beyond the point of ordinary belief – and why should anything about this performance be ordinary?

* * * * *

Licia, of course sang many more roles, logging in over 400 performances with the Metropolitan Opera over a long, distinguished singing career. Singing, however, wasn't her only career, as she went on - up until her passing, encouraging, coaching and aiding new, young singers to get established in this most difficult and rewarding art form. Madame Albanese truly was one of a kind, and though she has passed on, her work and legacy will live on. How lucky we were to have her! Rest in peace, dear lady.

Licia through the years.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Schubert's Fierrabras. Another Unjustly Neglected Singspiel

There is so much wonderful music in Fierrabras, listening to it one can only wonder why it is seldom, if ever heard.
Sadly, this may be one of the classic cases of a libretto doing in a musical composition of exquisite beauty. I myself have not a single problem with the libretto being a little far-reaching. It is often dismissed as being melodramatic, but personally I’ve never had a problem with operas being melodramatic for that is exactly what they’re supposed to be.

Having said that, let me try to relay Fierrabras’s plot, which exposes a veritable hotbed of ideas covering just about everything: religion, war, strife, freedom, imprisonment, enemy battles, betrayal, loyalty and love all taking place in the time and court of King Charlemagne. Florinda, daughter of the Moor Prince Boland is in love with Roland. Boland’s son, Fierrabras is in love with Charlemagne’s daughter, Emma. Emma, in turn, has the hots for the tenor, er, I mean Eginhard (well, he IS a tenor!).

There is war between the Franks and the Moors, the Franks win and Roland takes Fierrabras as his prisoner. Meanwhile, the Moors successfully capture Eginhad and Roland, who are then condemned to death. Florinda plots to free the Frankish prisoners, but only Eginhard (whom Emma is in love with) makes it out. Fierrabras returns with reinforcements and they free their comrades. Charlemagne and Boland declare peace and everyone pairs off, save Fierrabras, who, having lost Emma, remains alone.

There are two recordings I know of, both taken from live performances. The first, available on Myoto is a concert performance with the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in the role Eginhard, and exquisitely conducted by Hans Müller-Kray. I know little about the rest of the cast, but it is, for the most part, expertly sung and, considering it’s being live and recorded in the 50’s, has mostly excellent sound.

The other is taken from a glorious live performance (an actual staging) with Abbado conducting the Schoenberg Choir and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. With the exception of Wunderlich, the cast, in my opinion, could not be improved upon: Josef Protschka, Karita Mattila, Cheryl Studer, Thomas Hampson, Robert Gambill, Robert Holl with some outstanding lesser known singers in smaller roles. Like Müller-Kray, Abbado wants for nothing in expressivity, nuance and paying attention to details. Neither recording includes the dialogue.

Fierrabras’s score posseses some thrilling, over-the-top arias such as “Die Brust, Gebeugt Von Sorgen.” In the Abbado recording this is sung by Cheryl Studer with such rapt, breathlessness that its urgency jumps out of the speakers, taking one by surprise. As remarkable as the melodic line is, Schubert’s orchestrations here and everywhere throughout the opera could serve as a textbook of operatic orchestral writing with spectacular integrations of vocal underscoring/voice doubling as well as independent movement and almost visual imagery created through his instrumentation. It’s quite amazing stuff.

For my money, even more wonderful than the arias are the numerous ensembles and choruses, such as the duet “O Mog' Auf Froher Hoffnung Schwingen” or the ensemble and chorus “Der Landestochter Fromme Pflichten” each breathtaking in its beauty. In the latter Schubert takes a melody, almost folk like in its simplicity, then weaves it into an orchestral tapestry of almost bucolic bliss, strongly recalling Beethoven. Indeed, I believe much of the music of Fierrabras shows Beethoven’s influence on Schubert – not a bad thing, in my opinion. (My opinion also is that Schubert and Beethoven should have given us a lot more opera than they did.)

Another gorgeous duet, “Selbst An Des Grabes Rande” has an infectious waltz quality which Studer and Hampson perfectly capture with an almost Viennese lilt – then the men’s chorus enters and the whole affair will almost make
you forget The Merry Widow!

While some may say Fierrabras isn’t inspired I’ll disagree strongly. It is a nearly perfect example of Singspiel which I wish would have more of a presence in today’s world of opera.

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Stephen Fry: Wagner and Me

Somehow this film, approaching four years old, has evaded me until only a few days ago and I've now watched it twice. The BBC produced documentary finds Stephen Fry, an ardent fan of the music dramas of Richard Wagner, exploring Wagner's world while wrestling with his own Jewishness and the composer's anti-Semitism.

Fry's personality will always be a bit much for some (personally, I've always loved the guy) and he's prone towards a type of childish over-exuberance that puts some off, but he is sincere, earnest and (for folks like me) an engaging part of the film, making me recall my "falling in love with Wagner" experiences of my own youth. (The overture to
Rienzi, then Parsifal - which I understood not a word of but nonetheless grabbed me by the heart and has never let go in the ensuing 40+ years.)

Fry gives short biographical analyses as he retraces some of Wagner's steps through Lake Lucerne, Geneva, St. Petersburg, and opens and closes the film at Bayreuth, first during rehearsals and ultimately entering the Festpielhaus for his first Bayreuth performance. In between he explores the music, speaking with Wagner scholars and historians, a
Jewish cellist who survived Auschwitz, Valery Gergiev, a clearly irritated Eva Wagner (whose German coolness can barely tolerate Fry's exuberance), costumers, and others, (all too briefly), with each shedding their own light on the myriad aspects of Wagner's creative genius and his role within and without music.

His schoolboy enthusiasm may irritate some as in a constant of awe, he reveres a doorknob, Wagner's chair, boxes of wigs, costumes and props, but again, there is an earnestness here that I found endearing . . . and amusing.

The most satisfying musical "bit" explores Tristan und Isolde, as, with Fry, we wander into into the villa Wahnfried, catching Stefan Mickisch playing the snippets of the Liebesnacht and Liebestod on Wagner's own Steinway. whilst explaining the nature of a certain "chord." As Mickmisch plays, the scene intertwines with a live performance (Robert Dean Smith and Irene Theorin, looking more like Richard and Pat Nixon than the legendary Irish Princess and her consort). During the final pages of the Liebestod we weave back and forth between an ecstatic Fry and his pianist friend, and Theorin's Isolde, creating a magically, satisfying effect. It's the best part of the film and a wonderful moment.

Since watching I've had several discussions with friends who deplored the movie, claiming it to be too "vapid" and complaining it didn't go deep enough into Wagner's life and creative process. I could only counter by explaining, the name of the film is "Wagner and Me" not "Wagner and You" or "Exploring the Creative Genius of Richard Wagner," etc. It's one man's sharing of a deeply personal journey and as such, it succeeds marvelously.

If you like Stephen Fry and love Wagner (as I do), and haven't yet seen this, I give it a hearty and heartfelt recommendation.

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