Archive - November, 2011

OT: Faust

Timbre Marianne

“Entendez-vous dans les campagnes / Mugir ces féroces soldats ?”

A periodical from 1855 relates that someone criticized Auber and French music in Rossini’s presence, thinking to curry favor with the Swan of Pesaro. Rossini’s reply was both waggish and wise:
Do not undervalue French music. It has its merits. Certainly, it is not Italian; neither is it German; but it is all the better for that. It is lively, gay, expressive, witty, intelligible, charming; in one word, it is French.

A friend very kindly gave me a ticket for last night’s premiere of the new staging of Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera. I had hoped to write up a short “formal” review but cannot, because of impending travel and also because I take no joy in crafting stroncature.

Where to begin?

  • My friend speculated that the set was somehow acoustically unkind to the singers, and I think that he may be correct. I heard what I know as René Pape’s voice only once, when he was singing from one particular spot downstage during the church scene.
  • That said, Pape sounded woofy to me, and he possesses neither the clarity of enunciation nor the finesse required for French music. (And the soft-shoe? Not so much.)
  • Jonas Kaufmann is intelligent, sensitive, a wonderful actor, and—let’s be real, folks—a Kravattentenor or, perhaps, a baritone. Either way, Faust is not a rôle for him.
  • After reading the profile of her in The New Yorker, I had no idea what Marina Poplavskaya had accomplished to deserve that kind of attention. Having heard her in Traviata and Faust, I still have no idea. She was ghastly as Marguerite. Worse, the otherwise worthy Yannick Nézet-Séguin slackened the tempos, thereby prolonging the agony of hearing her out-of-tune mewling and shrieking. And yet, under one of those wicked come-scritto hacks, Poplavskaya can sing splendidly. Was she indisposed Monday evening?
  • (Whatever her foibles, Angela Gheorghiu can be counted on to deliver the goods vocally.)
  • Russell Braun, a great favorite of mine, was at his best in Valentin’s death scene, when his voice finally bloomed. (Nota bene: He was downstage and off to the side then.) Michèle Losier was a fine Siébel.
  • I admired a number of small touches in the staging: the shell-shocked veteran who went berserk when a camera flash went off; the woman who waited in vain for her husband or son to return from the front; Marguerite’s panicked drowning of her newborn in the stoup/lab sink.
  • What was Voldemort doing in Faust?
  • The atomic bomb? And the neutrinos?
  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin: excellent, though much too inclined to indulge the singers. (The slowest bits practically moved backwards. Nota bene: If the neutrino thing pans out, we will all be able to move backwards, and I will at long last get to meet Machiavelli. Fingers crossed.)
  • Finally: “Lively, gay, expressive, witty, intelligible, charming.” None of the above. Not French.

P.S. Read Will Crutchfield on Faust. Good stuff.

Anna Calvi on Maria Callas

Maria Callas: more than just a tragedy.

Maria Callas: more than just a tragedy.

Anna Calvi, whoever that is… Wait, there’s Wikipedia for us olds: “Anna Calvi is an English musician who plays in the band of the same name.” It seems that we have some favorite composers in common (Gesualdo and Messiaen), so maybe I will check her out.

In any event, in an interview published in The Vine, Ms. Calvi briefly discusses Maria Callas. Her comments on Callas’s singing are not especially insightful—no surprise there, musicians are rarely good with words. But further on, she makes a remark I very much appreciate:

I find when you listen to Maria Callas it’s hard to separate what you know about her life from her actual music.

I don’t know. I don’t really find that at all. She’s more than just a tragedy. She’s a true artist, I think.

No “Vissi d’arte,” no “Sola, perduta, abbandonata.” Instead, Callas in a light-hearted vein: “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, recorded in 1954 with Tullio Serafin conducting.

Happy birthday, Maria Callas

Darling readers, Friday is Maria Callas’s birthday. Since I will be on the road, the celebrations are staring early!

Callas as a baby.

Callas as a baby.

Maria Callas was born in New York, New York 88 years ago, on 2 December 1923.

The wee moppet shown in the photo grew up to be the disquieting Lucia, the ferocious Medea, the diaphanous Amina, the heartrending Violetta, and the sublime Norma who haunts our dreams even now, nearly half a century after her final performances in opera.

I wrote about the uncertainty surrounding her birthdate in my essay “Re-visioning Callas,” and also discussed some of the reasons why she remains a controversial figure.

But this week, in honor of her birthday, let’s sidestep the feuds and the minefields and toast Maria Callas with a glass or two of champagne. (Those of us who don’t imbibe can raise a coupe of Martinelli’s or rosewater.)

To my mind, the musical equivalent of champagne is Rossini, so a short Callas and Rossini playlist follows at the end of this post. I also include “Les feux d’artifice” from Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna, which is based in part on Callas’s life. I’ve written elsewhere about why I think that Prima Donna may paint a mawkish and misleading picture of Callas’s days in Paris. All the same, I think that it is a loving and beautiful tribute to her.

In Italian, we say cent’anni (“a hundred years”) for someone’s birthday, but this expression is redundant and inadequate in Callas’s case, because she is immortal. Mutatis mutandis, the final verses of Ovid’s Metamorphòses come to mind:

And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that has power only over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies,—vivam—I shall live.

Il turco in Italia: Selections one, two, and three.

Il barbiere di Siviglia: Selections one and two.

Rufus Wainwright, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent

OT: Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès

Ian Bostridge CBE

Ian Bostridge CBE

A few days ago I read a very funny letter from Rossini to Verdi. (Pause to attempt to comprehend the notion of that much genius on this planet at once. What were the possible ramifications for the space-time continuum?)

Rossini included a postscript: “Tell Madame Verdi that I am her servant.”

Well, tell Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès that I am their servant! The recital that they gave last night at Carnegie Hall was the finest I have ever heard, a wondrously beautiful, profound, and thought-provoking thing.

Here is my review from The Classical Review.

Maria Callas as Turandot III

Greetings, my venticinque lettori! I hope that all of you in the States had a wonderful Thanksgiving. (Mine was grand.)

Turandot: I have another trip coming up, and I think that Callas’s 1957 EMI recording will come along with me. Why have I not spent more time with this set? Well, for one thing, my favorite Puccini opera (by far) is Fanciulla. And there are so many operas by other composers that I prefer to Turandot. And, yes, Schwarzkopf as Liù is a bitter pill, to say the least.

Still, Callas is wondrous as Turandot. In today’s selection, the riddle scene, listen to her growing panic: she taunts Calaf before he answers the final enigma, but her anxiety is palpable, and we can feel the butterflies in her gut. And the sense of mystery and vulnerability she brings to the first riddle echoes what we heard in her evocation of Lou-Ling’s rape and what we will hear after Calaf’s kiss.

Eugenio Fernandi is Calaf and Giuseppe Nessi is the emperor; Tullio Serafin conducts.

Maria Callas as Turandot II

The finale of Pucccini’s Turandot is problematic, to say the least. I have never had the opportunity to hear in the theatre Alfano’s complete completion or the finale by Luciano Berio. Truth be told, I long for someone to commission a Turandot finale from a woman. (Kaija Saariaho? Why, yes, she would do quite nicely, thank you.)

The EMI Turandot from 1957 is not considered one of Callas’s finest efforts. She recorded it shortly before she set down Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and that set was withheld until 1960 because of her poor vocal form. The months following these recording sessions would bring two Callas “scandals”—her failure to sing a final Sonnambula at the Edinburgh Festival (for which she may or may not have signed a contract); and the Rome Norma hullabaloo.

Now, all of that said, 1957 also brought some of Callas’s greatest performances: the Cologne Sonnambula, the La Scala Ballo, the Dallas rehearsal and concert, and her EMI Barbiere.

I revisited the finale from the 1957 recording of Turandot expecting to hear middling Callas and was surprised at her fierce and authoritative form. I don’t much care for the Calaf, Eugenio Fernandi, and Turandot needs better sound quality than EMI could deliver half a century ago, but… tutto sommato… wow.

Turandot was only 33 years old (counting from Puccini’s death in 1924) when this recording was made. How about that?

Hear Callas in other music by Puccini here and in the blog archives.

Maria Callas as Turandot

How is it that I have never posted about Callas in Puccini’s Turandot? The blog search engines are surely misfiring.

Turandot was an important rôle in the early years of Callas’s career in Italy and South America. She sang it some twenty-five times in 1948 and 1949 (at one point, four times in eight days), then dropped the rôle, revisiting it only for two EMI recordings and one 1957 concert in Chicago.

In 1954, she recorded Liù’s arias and “In questa reggia” for her Puccini recital, and in 1957 she set down the complete opera.

This “In questa reggia” is from 1954, and it is one of my favorite Callas performances. Many have commented on the sense of mystery and pudore that pervades Callas’s voice when Turandot evokes the memory of Princess Lou-Ling, her raped and murdered ancestor. Along with those knife-like thrusts at “Quel grido e quella morte,” it always makes me shiver.

Hear Callas in other music by Puccini here and in the blog archives. (The latter link takes you to another remarkable performance of “In questa reggia,” by Dame Joan Sutherland.)

OT: Rodelinda

A superb recording.

A superb recording.

A quick note to let you know that I reviewed Handel’s Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera for The Classical Review.

Prior to Monday’s Rodelinda, I had heard the countertenor Andreas Scholl in concert but not in opera. Oh, heavens, what an artist! Yes, his voice is on the small side for the Met, but who cares? Consider what Victor Maurel (the creator of Verdi’s Iago and Falstaff, among other rôles) wrote (emphasis in the original):

Within ten minutes, an audience becomes accustomed to a vocal tone (tonalité sonore), however powerful it may be. What never fails to astonish and captivate the public is rightness, energy, and variety of accent.

YES. Do not miss the broadcast and high-definition transmission of Rodelinda on 3 December. And I commend to you Mr. Scholl’s beautiful new Decca recording of Bach cantatas.

P.S. I was exceedingly impressed by Iestyn Davies, as well.

The ghost of Maria Callas

Maria Callas, c. 1954.

Maria Callas, c. 1954.

“The ghost of Maria Callas” is a lovely piece composed by Matt Elliott. You can hear it, and read remarks by Mr. Elliott, in the blog archives.

Mr. Elliott knows more about Maria Callas than many people who write about her. Today’s gem comes from the Giornale di Brescia. The designer Roberto Capucci has created a new dress in honor of the famous “Winged Victory” statue in Brescia and is exhibiting it along with older creations, including

the sculpture-gown “Vestale,” Capucci’s personal homage to Maria Callas, which the celebrated opera singer wore in 1986 at the Arena di Verona.

Nine years after her death! Maria Callas never ceases to amaze.

As I write, Capucci’s own website is not fully launched. It may offer more plausible information in time.

Hear music (and watch videos) related to Spontini’s La vestale in the blog archives.

EMI sold

The nth iteration of Callas’s “Lucia.”

Callas’s stereo “Lucia.”

Last week, EMI Group, who own (or used to own) Maria Callas’s recordings, were split in two and sold to Universal Music Group (Vivendi) and a consortium led by Sony.

What effect, if any, this will have on Callas’s catalogue remains to be seen. I am thoroughly confused by copyright law, but I believe that nearly all of Callas’s EMI recordings are now in the public domain in Europe.

Page 1 of 212»