Monday, May 12, 2008

Gobbi as Wozzeck

It is no surprise to read that Tito was the leading Wozzeck in Europe in the 40's & 50's and hearing him in this performance with a decade or so of Wozzeck's under his belt, it is clear to understand why. What an opportunity for this most giving of Italian singers who loved to act, completely inhabit one of 20th century operatic literature's most fascinating characters. Gobbi resists every impulse to overplay the patheticness of the role, and finds something one doesn't necessarily always associate with the role - a sort of vulnerable sweetness. Odd, I know, but it's there. His slow, unraveling of both mind and spirit are pure "lump-in-your-throat" drama and his really must be viewed as one of the greatest of Wozzecks we've had. The Orchestra Sinfonico della RAI Orchestra under Nino Sanzogno doesn't give the most illustrious or clean reading of this difficult score - especially when compared with, say, Mitropolous from around the same time. Nonetheless, everything is fired off with an incredible sense of drama. Interestingly, according to everything I've been able to find, no Italian soprano at the time was interested in learning Marie, so many of the performances throughout Italy of Wozzeck went to the lovely American soprano Dorothy Dow. And so we get her Marie in this set and she matches Gobbi in intensity, and that lovely gleaming voice adds a bit of a different character to the darker-hued (or weightier) voices I'm used to in the role. (Interesting side note: On the famous Mitropoulos Wozzeck with Mack Harrell & Eileen Farrell - a "bonus" to the set is Dorothy Dow's marvelous go at Schoenberg's "Ewartung.") Dow would also be Marie to Gobbi's anti-hero in the now legendary La Scala premiere of the work. That's the one that began with booing, and shouts of "Vergogna! Vergogna!" - before the entire house fell under the spell of the work and demanded 10 curtain calls prompting the Widow Berg (seated in the Royal Box) to say "Everything was right" and the next morning's paper proclaimed the night would go down as a historic on in La Scala's grand history. This Rome performance has surprisingly decent sound for a live performance and, again, everyone is caught up as if by spell. It's also rather remarkable to hear this work in Italian. One might be tempted to think that of all works to be translated into Italian one relying so much on language as does Wozzeck might end up being too "soft" on the ears. Nope. The Italian as sung by Gobbi and company makes a convincing case for Wozzeck in Italian. About that company. Joining Dow and Gobbi is no less than Hugues Cuenod as the Captain, Mirto Picchi as the Drum Major, and Italo Tajo as the Doctor. This inexpensive set's booklet includes neither libretto nor synopsis - it seems to have been put out for freaks like me who can't get enough of this opera. What it does have is extensive excerpts from two other live Wozzecks: Geraint Evans, Anja Silja & Bohm from Salzburg 1971, and a 1934 performance from London featuring Richard Bitterauf and May Blyth. I purchased this at Amazon for less than $17.00 and for anyone interested in this opera (both of you!) I really can't recommend it highly enough. p.

Man on the Moon: An Opera about Buzz & Joan Aldrin

Jonathan Dove has created a joyful, touching and thought provoking drama of such intimacy covering such a broad spectrum of emotion and events tied to the first lunar landing, that it’s difficult to believe all of this could effectively be captured in a work of such brevity. But it works. Nathan Gunn and Patricia Racette should have won some sort of acting awards for their moving portrayals of Buzz and Joan Aldrin. (While each looks distinctively like themselves, their resemblances to their roles are almost uncannily spooky).

This is the fourth work I’ve heard from Mr. Dove, and I feel I know what to expect, yet each time, end up being surprised. Initially, his music often seems like a spin-off of John Adams. Yes, he does use many similar effects (those famous minimalistic repeated brass chords, woodwinds racing up and down scales and arpeggios seemingly faster than humanly possible, etc.,) and yet, such such densely, richly orchestrated writing doesn’t feel necessarily like part of the “minimalism” movement. What truly distinguishes Dove’s operas from almost anyone else writing in this genre is this most important thing: his attention to, and setting of his texts. Each time a character sings, his or her words take on a richer, larger expressivity than had they been uttered by an actor, extending the emotional range to, well, operatic proportions, which is precisely the point. In this regard, Dove has exceeded anything else he’s previously accomplished in this genre.

His writing for both Mr. and Mrs. Aldrin is rather powerful stuff. Buzz’s role runs the gamut from witty pre-flight check-up jitters covered by macho-bravado to the opera’s most poignant and revealing aria where the astronaut – a likeable but slightly vague man, opens his eyes in heart in a moment of extraterrestrial beauty. Nathan Gunn’s tight, flexible baritone is perfect in this music and his voice and Dove’s writing for it sound as though tailor made. Gunn portrays the nonchalant astroscientist with a bravado that covers up myriad insecurities and a manic-quality belying his depression. Gunn also captures the darker side, Aldrin’s almost blinding anger at being demoted to the “2nd” when NASA selects Neil Armstrong to be the First Man on the Moon. But something happens up there and the aria Gunn sings is simple and beautiful. Since this is a work written for television, the visual element cannot go unmentioned. We are given one of those impossibly beautiful shots of the earth as seen from the moon and Dove’s score here captures aurally the breathtaking sight Aldrin must have felt; the sense of awe and wonder as well as the humbling knowledge that he is the first human to have ever seen this before. A daunting task to put down in music and another composer might have done it differently, perhaps better even, but in this context what Dove achieves is no less than remarkable and Gunn infuses the moment with brilliance. Simultaneously, Racette's Joan, years later listening to this recounting of her beloved’s epiphany, understands, but too late. This makes for for some pretty powerful stuff.

Racette’s Joan is a wonder. A nervous, martini swilling, chain smoking wreck she moves from her self-medicating to magazine cover smiling nuclear wife and mom as quickly as she can crack that dazzling smile. She looks a little puffy in those great yet somehow ghastly 1970’s designs and she sounds like a million bucks. Again, Dove writes some exquisite melodies and Racette nails them all, including some powerhouse high notes and, in particular, one ravishing high pianissimo. The music capturing the lunar landing with Armstrong’s heroic belting out of those famous words “The Eagle has landed!” – and what ensues – the brief, moment of triumphant joy is shared between the Control Room scientists in Houston, and Aldrin’s family listening from their living room, with Joan’s voice soaring über alles, is as joyous a bit of operatic writing as has been written in the last 100 years. Joan ends the scene, singing in a state of near ecstasy “I always knew, if they could land, then they could leave, if they could leave, they could fly. If they could fly, they can come back to earth. Buzz will come home!”

As “high” as that moment is, Dove, the dramatist does something remarkable here, as, on the same breath as her last syllable, Joan repeats the phrase, “Buzz will come home” twice more, lower and her emotion changing from spousal joy to a sort of unknown fear of what that return will bring. It’s a brilliant moment and again, Racette nails the instant change of emotion with a unique dramatic flair. This work is truly unique - a genuine hybrid and virtually impossible to stage live requiring an enormous cast, its 58 scenes clocking in at a mere 48 minutes.

I purchased my copy through (I am not affiliated with premiere, just a happy customer) and couldn’t be happier with the quality. I am only a little sad (but not surprised) that this remarkably accessible work on a very American subject has never aired on American television. The performances by all, especially Racette and Gunn are truly noteworthy. Anyone with less than an hour to spend and the desire to be moved by something new - really should check this out!


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Thoughts on Kundry

It’s no secret that Parsifal is in my “top 5” when it comes to “favorite operas (not an easy category).

I was therefore, a little incensed when someone suggested to me that the role of Kundry makes only a meager contribution to the opera, that basically she is “limited to the second act” – and therefore could easily be relegated to a “non-entity” type of singer – “or someone just starting out.” He asked “Does Kundry matter?”

Naturally, I couldn’t have disagreed more. I cited Kundry as being one of the most fascinating, perplexing, and ultimately touching roles any singer could want. Not only in each act does she appear creature transformed, but actually transforms before us – an operatic shapeshifter.

The Act I wild woman in no way prepares us for the sultry seductress who of Act II, who is more – far more – than merely a singing siren. Kundry must make us feel her pain, and a good one always earns the sympathies of the audience, putting across her anguish and torture. There is a regality, a superiority over Parsifal as she attempts to entice him and produce the same results she has for centuries – the same way she helped ruin Amfortas.

I have always found her opening screams in the second act to be the ultimate horror of one waking who realizes they are still alive when they would rather be anything but. Then, after all of the blustery chatter and exoticism of the Blumenmadchen, Kundry remerges with her second entrance of the act, and following her "Parsifal Weile!" . . . well, what follows that entrance is simply mindboggling – one of the most powerful, lengthy duets in all of Wagner. In short order Kundry tells Parsifal of Herzeleide’s demise, comforts him, falls in love with him (as best she is able) then alternates between disgust, heartbreak, contempt and longing. Talk about conflicted! All the while, Kundry is simultaneously attempting to continue Klingsor's dirty work, yet, something of the innocent fool really has caught her fancy, captured her even. In that capture she longs for him to – and believes he can - save her, release her from this endless life: Redeemed.

(I always think here, E. Marty ain't got nothing on Kundry!)

What makes all of this even more interesting (to me at least!) is Parsifal possesses pretty much the same conflicts within himself as Kundry. As an audience, Wagner lets us in on something – and we realize Kundry has taught Parsifal a lesson which he doesn't even realize. It’s brilliant really, what Wagner does here. He has woven around this complex, bizarre twisted tale of carnality, rage, torment and hope, one of the great duets in all of
opera: a perfect union of text and music. As bizarre as this may sound, when listening (or watching and listening) to this duet I often forget I'm listening to music at all – my life, my psyche, inextricably linked - intertwined with the experience of Parsifal and Kundry – shutting out entirely the rest of the world and whatever it may hold.

(Okay, I’ve calmed down).

Kundry’s third act can provide a fine singing actress with a most remarkable and rewarding challenge. With almost nothing to sing, she is a major presence, her “silent actions as important to Wagner’s drama as all of Gurnemanz’s endless pronouncements on nature, and forgiveness and redemption. Wagner saw Kundry's role as absolutely necessary in this tale and ultimately, her redemption is, equal to every other element of the opera. No matter how far out the staging may be, we hear it in the music. After hours of conflict, mystery, confusion, rejection, Kundry’s tortured soul finally finds release, and so do we.

So, once again: Does Kundry matter? Hell yeah!


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La Stupenda on La Divina

I recently re-watched an interview of Joan Sutherland on Charlie Rose from several years back. I thought it pretty cute when Charlie asked "other than your own ... excluding your own, what other voice have you been enchanted by?"

"Flagstad. Tebaldi. Ummm... Callas." Charlie mentions he knows they worked together early in her carrer and asks what Callas was like to work with. Sutherland described Callas as “humble, very humble very sweet, very helpful, a worker - my goodness.”

"But, brilliant as an actress too?" asks Charlie.

Uh oh. Dame Joan gave her shoulders a nervous shrug, her eyebrows raised up
her to the top of forehead escaping worms. She remained silent – almost as though couldn’t believe the question had been asked. She issued forth more physical ticks - neck stretches, swang her head from shoulder to shoulder before responding with a long "ummmmmm.... in some cases.” Charlie was leaning in now. “ [acting] it was a bit hammy [loud, deep chuckle] but it ... it ... it told -- it ... it ... it was always full of a . . .
certain expression, yes.”

So from Miss Sutherland we now get a portrait of Callas as an enchanting singer, a kind, sweet, helpful woman . . . but a hammy actress. Wow!

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Operatic Conservatism: A Response and Rejection of It

A few years back I found myself embroiled in an argument, defending Cecilia Bartoli’s intent on making an album of Salieri’s music – and thus writing in defense of the oft-maligned Salieri.

What prompted my defense was a published quote stating “Everyone is aware that Salieri’s music is severely lacking in musical substance, refinement and is generally unlistenable.” The quote went on to say that Bartoli (and anyone else performing Salieri) was scraping the bottom of the barrel . . . and there ensued more badmouthing about about the Emperor’s new clothes, etc.,

One of the things that bums me out most about the current classical music “industry” scene is that audiences seem to be becoming more and more conservative, less able, or perhaps only less willing, to being challenged by the new or unfamiliar. This keeps us from achieving any meaningful or deeper musical intelligence, since staying with the familiar we’re automatically depriving ourselves of activity that would enhance our awareness of tradition, its role and where music is going - as well as from whence it came.

It is this same prosaic attitude and inactivity which (in part) prevents new operas from being developed and actively becoming part of the repertoire. I recall how most of the professional reviews – almost all negative – for Jake Heggie’s "Dead Man Walking" offered neither admiration for, nor appreciation of, the risks the young composer took in attempting to write his an opera, his first. That he took on such a great challenge in a suffocating environment hostile towards anything new is even more remarkable. Interestingly, audiences found the work approachable, powerful and theatrical. It has gone on to receive productions throughout the world, despite continued negative press.

More and more I am disgusted by audiences who seem to avoid any sort of challenge - who want their opera, like most of their art, easily digestible; in some instances, even pre-digested. (I'll chew on my own, thank you very much.)

Recently I read a criticism of a production of Elektra I rather liked as not being deranged, demented or mad enough, comparing the heroine with Birgit Nilsson who “looked and sounded crazy from the start.” This got me to wondering: why is it we demand every damned cat be skinned the same way? If we're going to keep hauling out the same operas, is there, in today's climate, no room for at least a fresh look? Good grief, Nilsson last sang the role nearly 30 years ago and some of us still can’t move on? Still can’t accept a different perspective? Still can’t accept a different voice?

As familiar as I become with my favorite works, I'm forever seeking new ways in which to explore them, new things to find in them; to discover, as with a good friend that, while I may expect a certain level of comfort, there might be a challenge or two waiting in store as well. It keeps things fresh. Prevents mental mildew and ennui from setting in.

But that conservatism I'm complaining of extends not only to newer works of the last century and of our own time, but to ALL things unfamiliar; even (or especially) "old" things. Those that would suppose our enlightened age to possess the final word on what is worth exploring and rediscovering, knowingly or not, limit or minimize the efforts and gifts of those who blazed every path before us. To dismiss the exploration of the works of Salieri - or of any unfamiliar composer - is to automatically, without just reason, close ourselves off from the possibility of experiencing . . . well, possibilities. It wasn't too awfully long ago Bach was considered an inferior composer to Buxtehude, Hasse and Telemann and his works lay dormant, unperformed. In my own brief lifetime I've seen the operatic works of Handel go from being summarily dismissed as "too much of the same," to the latest craze.

The effort to offer only the familiar feels too much like an attempt of universalizing or homogenizing everything for a more common, blander palate. It is the equivalent of "one size fits all" when clearly it doesn't and can't.

There is perhaps a place for conservatism (and I don't mean tempering) in the arts which I possibly just don't understand, for I feel it the very antithesis of why art happens in the first place. Certainly some would argue it is to merely entertain, but what is wrong with letting it also enlighten?

There is something about the age in which we live that bothers me. Perhaps because of the time constraints we've put upon ourselves via making our lives easier than in prior centuries, we seem to have developed a feel we've only the time (or is it the need?) to have and enjoy only the very best. If this is so, how then can we use “only the best” as gauge or measure? Every day it seems as though I hear or read of our society’s increasing inability to enjoy or appreciate something that isn't the biggest, the best, the grandest, etc. - be it food, music, film, drama, architecture, gardening . . . whatever. It's a cheerless commentary then that ours has, in essence, become a society of size queens.

While Salieri's music may not be deemed genius (though who truly of us can play judge, outside of our personal tastes?) his compositions do offer something other than the steady diet of sameness to which we’ve become content (or overjoyed) sustaining ourselves with. I've enjoyed just about every bit of Salieri I've heard and can't (truly) understand the damning he gets. I've watched the Schwetzingen DVD of "Falstaff" at least a half dozen times now, and have grown to love it more each passing time. If there’s something wrong with me for liking this music, I hope I’ll remain blissfully ignorant of the cure!

I would never imagine disputing the greatness of Mozart, but we seem to forget – or even worse, not care - that there were others, many of them, who came before and during the time of music’s beloved golden child. So then, where are the performances of the composers from the Mannheim School? Franz Richter (who died only two years before Mozart) wrote some 100 symphonies (or more) 80 of which have survived to this day/ Ever heard one? He penned 39 masses, countless solo works, chamber works, motets, concerti, etc. In addition to his dazzling prolificacy as a composer, Richter was a performer: a highly celebrated opera and concert singer, successfully touring France, the Netherlands and England. Not only this, Richter was one of the most respected of musical educators, teaching many gifted composers and performers. One of his treatises on musical composition was translated into a number of languages and during his lifetime and after, taught around the world.

While there are perhaps a few of us who would be more than merely curious to hear more of his music, certain respected critics, have given him a casual listen, dismissing it with variations of the damnable "he ain't Mozart." Even with years of training and experience I'm glad my own ears are not so highly skilled for me to reject Salieri, Richter or anyone else as not "important" as ol’ Amadeus.

Another Mannheim composer, Ignaz Holzbauer, was widely acclaimed throughout Europe, moving outside of Vienna and finding work in Milan and Venice. Here's another wildly prolific composer who gave the world some 70 symphonies, many popular operas (including his own La Clemenza di Tito years before Mozart’s), numerous masses, concerti, chamber and solo works for a number of instruments. Anyone heard any good Holzbauer lately? I didn’t think so.

Then there was Johann Stamitz (father of the still, somewhat semi-popular Karl). Stamitz, Sr., was one of the very first proponents of the four movement symphony, long before Mozart adopted the switch from three to four movements - years, in fact, before Mozart was even born! Yet, often – and incorrectly, Mozart (and M. Haydn) are given more credit for the 4 movement development. Certainly Mozart and his contemporaries took the symphony to a higher level, but the groundwork had already been laid for them - they had only to take it and run. There’s certainly got to be some advantage in developing and advancing of an idea when one has the added benefit of not having had to "invent" the idea in the first place.

If we look at music as an evolutionary art we cannot - or should not – be so quick in summarily dismissing or ignoring its history. I don't believe it is should be a requirement of every listener to know "from whence we came" - but I believe too many of us call ourselves "music lovers" when in actuality we are music enjoyers; casual observers. Not a bloody thing wrong with that, but, if we profess to actually "love" something does it not behoove us to explore its history, understand it and accept it on its own merits for precisely what it is and from where it came? I can't imagine otherwise.

I've been thrilled to see the resurgence of interest in music earlier even then the early Viennese and Mannheim Schools (far earlier!). One of the highlights of my life so far was being able to experience a an absolutely life-altering performance of Hildegard von Bingen's "Ordo Virtutum." Short of having lived in the 12th Century, this opportunity would not have been possible in any other era than ours.

Now, hopefully we’ll live long enough to see more music by the aforementioned guys get a chance to also see the light of day. Now, that would be something!


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Alfano: Long Lost Sakuntala - At Last!

Some nights ago I pulled out a treasure of fairly recent discovery – a work I’d long known of, but recordings of which seemed impossible to find until several years ago when a live one – the only one I’m aware of, came my way: Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting Alfano’s “Sakuntala.”

There is, as one might expect from any “lesser” composer of the time, much influence of Debussy and Strauss throughout the score. To that end it is almost not quite “Italian” sounding. Quite simply, Alfano’s instrumentation and use of color is nothing less than remarkable and gorgeous - exotic. I had often read that Puccini himself had been influenced by the younger composer and that the writing we find so captivating in Turandot (and rather different from most of Puccini’s other work) came from his having read Alfano’s score. Finally getting a listen-to of Sakuntala, one can definitely hear where Puccini got some of his Turandot ideas.

Interestingly, part of the long first act duet between the King and Sakuntala is strongly reminiscent of what Alfano would write in Turandot’s finale – a finale that used Puccini’s own musical shorthand – already “borrowed” from Alfano! This first act duet between the lovers, more than do most other Italian operatic duets, approaches a near Tristan length and Alfano never seems to run out of ideas. Stunning is not too strong a word to describe it.

Later, there’s a moment - toward the beginning of Act II – which sounds like the font from which Philip Glass seems to drunk to have gotten some of his best ideas.

In the second act our heroine is given an enormous aria – a 10 minutes voice buster which (almost literally) breathtakingly segues into the next scene. This is a truly huge sing for the soprano.

Alfano’s vocal writing here turns seems to turn away from Italian tradition and is far different than what we get from Puccini in this same period. Alfano seems more here by Wagner than does Puccini. Phrases are much longer with a sort of pseudo- Wagnerian- parlando, yet without sounding particularly Wagnerian. It’s really lovely – and rather original.

A dance/ballet opens the final act that strongly recall’s Strauss. This is not particularly great music, but (like Strauss’s Veil Dance) atmospheric and never less than enjoyable. That is no small compliment in and of itself. In all likelihood, the dance stands a better chance of being performed than the rest of this beautiful work.

In many respects I find a musical/spiritual connection between this work and Enescu’s Oedipe and those who have recently discovered the joys of that other obscure opera are certain to find plenty to enjoy here.

This recording was taken from a 1979 performance. The principal roles are sung by:

Sakuntala - Celestina Casapietra
The King - Michele Molese
Kanva - Aurio Tomicich

with the RAI Symphony and Chorus conducted by Ottavio Ziino.

Ms. Casapietra was entirely unknown to me. While I would have liked a juicier, firmer voice she does manage the difficult high music quite well and sings with a great (impressive actually) amount of emotion, such that one senses she really “feels” this music. The lower voice can be a bit shaky (actually, fairly often) with a hollow quality that is never particularly lovely. The third act goes much better for her, the top notes opening up in a way they hadn’t earlier and the effect is (save for one squally High C – ironically on the word “Orror!”) and her singing here turns quite thrilling, her commitment paying off and that in and of itself is an important thing in getting this work to come across to those unfamiliar with this work. (which is pretty much everyone).

New York City Opera stalwart, Michele Molese starts off just a wee bit thin, but within minutes the voice takes on a rich bloom and his sound - past the passagio - is generally thrilling. Like Casapietra he sings the music with conviction, the pair of them almost
seeming to get carried completely away by Alfano’s sumptuous outpourings.

The final scene looks so forward to the final bars composed for Turandot that there simply can be no doubt left as to who’s ideas closed that opera.

Though the sound is not flawless (there appears to be some bleed through in spots which I’m guessing stem from the original tape source) it is more than good enough to convey the sense of wonder Alfano infuses through so much of this strange and beautiful work.

I really couldn’t be more pleased with this release.

Bravo, Alfano!


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