Posted in Opera

Paying Your Money….and Taking Your Choice

Well….I had planned to expound at length on the glories of Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner as promised last week, but Zachary Woolfe’s article in the Sunday New York Times about the Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecasts is just too tempting to let pass. Normally I can’t abide Mr. Woolfe or his usually half-cocked reviews, but I must say this particular discussion is spot on.

As you can tell from this blog, I have the good fortune to live in the New York metropolitan area, which means I have ready access to the Met, Carnegie Hall and numerous other venues where I can experience live opera and classical music performances. I’ve been a Metropolitan Opera subscriber for 25 years, and was a New York City Opera subscriber for a number of years prior to that. To date I’ve seen the Met’s simultaneous HD telecasts of “Le Comte Ory” and “The Enchanted Island” and many more when shown later on PBS. So being a veteran and all, the only thing I can say in response to “Are the HD telecasts good or bad for opera?” is:

What’s the big deal?

Caruso recording for RCA, 1902

Metropolitan Opera performances have been broadcast on PBS since the late 1970’s. Yes, there’s a big difference in the quality of sound between hearing an opera live and seeing it on a television or movie screen, but this goes with the territory. People who carp about it are Luddites, in my opinion, who probably would have strangled the recording industry in its cradle. But the opera singers who first stepped into the recording booth not long after the turn of the last century saw this as a wonderful way to bring their art to the widest possible audience in addition to preserving their legacy, in much the same fashion as many of today’s singers view the telecasts. Nevertheless, recorded sound can lie, and I’m not talking about the limits of the acoustical horn. The voices of some singers are simply not flattered by the studio product, Beverly Sills being a prime example (her voice was always more full and varied in color in the house). And the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, which began in the early 1930’s, don’t always tell the truth either—you get no sense of the size of a voice since the mikes are placed at the lip of the stage and immediately overhead. So the critics are not raising a new issue.

In terms of drama, however, the HD telecasts are just the thing for opera lovers whose priorities include good theater as opposed to just “park and bark” opera. They feature the type of immediacy that few live performances can muster unless you have the money for an orchestra seat (but then what you hear would be subpar, because opera always sounds better in the Family Circle). “Le Comte Ory” in HD was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and not just because of the intricate staging of the final ménage à trois—the singers’ facial expressions were a wonderful accompaniment to the in-bed gymnastics, thus demonstrating that binoculars are not always a substitute for close-ups. Similarly, the camera was able to catch sight of a single tear on the cheek of Anna Netrebko as the dying Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” thus making her character’s fate even more poignant. But there are drawbacks. The HD audience has to work a bit harder to suspend its disbelief when viewing the opening scene of “Der Rosenkavalier,” because, let’s face it, Susan Graham, no matter how resourceful, can’t really resemble the 17-year-old boy that Octavian is supposed to be. And the camera literally pierces the veil during the Met’s wonderful production of “Madama Butterfly” because we can see the faces of the bunraku puppeteers who bring Cio-Sio-San’s little son to life.

In the final analysis I do think the HD telecasts are the “next best thing” to seeing live opera. While there’s no real substitute for acoustic sound (and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Wagner—live—create the world in the key of E-flat major at the start of “Das Rheingold”) the dramatic rewards of HD opera are plentiful. And let’s be honest—it’s the rare person who’s got the time and the money to see everything on their operatic wish list live on any given occasion, or in many cases even to travel to an opera house at all. Not everything on my Hit Parade made it onto my Met subscription series for next season, so I’m glad I’ll still get to see “Les Troyens” and “The Tempest” at a movie theater near me.

One feature of the HD telecasts, though, is extremely important—every showing includes a public service announcement urging the audience to seek out a nearby opera company and experience a live performance. No better advice can be given, but with bankruptcies of numerous regional companies and orchestras, the availability of the HD telecasts is not a luxury—it’s a necessity if the art form is to survive. And for those of us who love it, we’ll take it however we can get it.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

That Hollywood Sound (Part I)

Before there was John Williams or Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman, or for that matter, any of the other film composers working today, the movie studios had at their disposal an incredible pool of talent whose classic works remain a cut above the rest: Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Dimitri Tiomkin—all European emigrés—along with the home-grown Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin and Alfred Newman (the leader of a musical dynasty whose brothers [Emil and Lionel], sons [David and Thomas] and nephew [Randy, of course] all composed for the movies).

Like the films they scored, the work these composers produced was considered somewhat ephemeral, merely an accompaniment to the stars whose faces adorned the screen. This seemed to be the general view until the early 1970’s when Charles Gerhardt, a music producer for RCA with a modest conducting background, began to record an extraordinary series of albums devoted to the compositions of these men and the actors whose films they wrote for. Initially released on LP, the albums reappeared on CD in the 1980’s, and last year were remastered and re-released. I’ve been listening to the most recent version, and I can’t believe the depth of sound. Quite an eye (ear?)-opener—I honestly don’t remember the music being this full or detailed even on vinyl.

Gerhardt’s reassembly of these scores involved some painstaking detective work, which is detailed in the program notes for the “Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores” album. Speaking of which, that album contains two important selections written by the composer whose work surprised me the most in this series—Dimitri Tiomkin, whose music until this point I had never really cared for. Despite his Russian origins, he wrote for a lot of Westerns, most prominently “High Noon” (“Do not forsake me/Oh my darlin’/On this our wedding day”), “The Alamo” and TV’s “Rawhide.” But Gerhardt’s Tiomkin album contains an extended suite from “Lost Horizon” which is pure genius, with the composer depicting Shangri-La and its people seemingly without meter, a sly pun, perhaps, on their eternal life. There’s also the love scene in the barn from “Friendly Persuasion,” which sounds almost Copland-esque, ultimately blooming into the familiar theme. Best of all, on “The Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores” you can hear a suite from “The Thing (From Another World),” one of the most unusual soundtracks ever written. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must (sadly) tell you that Gerhardt opted to use an ondes Martenot and four countertenors in place of a theremin. The former instrument produces a rounder, more mellow sound than the wiry, put-your-teeth-on-edge theremin, but Tiomkin’s weird intervals, buzzing trumpets and trilling piccolos still bring “The Thing” to life in all its glory.

Gerhardt’s David Raksin album covers only three films, but two were instant classics (the third, “Forever Amber,” still hasn’t made it to DVD). Has there ever been a lovelier movie theme, before or since, than “Laura”? Gerhardt’s selection begins with the underscoring of the classic scene in which Detective McPherson, obsessed with Laura and her murder, falls asleep in her apartment, only to awaken to find her alive and standing over him. The suite from “The Bad and the Beautiful” makes you very aware that Raksin’s score is a virtual mini-symphony, with extensive and formal theme development.The same can be said for Miklos Rosza’s music for “The Red House,” though I enjoyed Gerhardt’s selections from “The Lost Weekend” and “Spellbound” far more—particularly the latter, which includes the music from the dream sequence that Gregory Peck’s character relates to Ingrid Bergman’s mentor. And while we’re on the subject of theremins, Rosza uses this instrument extensively in the scores of both films to depict Ray Milland’s DTs (the “bat and mouse” sequence has got to be one of the most revolting things ever put on film) and Gregory Peck’s zone-outs when he sees wavy lines. Gerhardt also includes some of Rosza’s outstanding work for the Kordas in England, the best of which is the sequence from “The Four Feathers” when Ralph Richardson loses his pith helmet and gets sunstroke.

Even though I’ll be discussing a number of other albums in the Gerhardt series in the weeks to come, I’m going to reveal my favorite now: the CD devoted to Franz Waxman’s music. The selections couldn’t be any better, featuring his back-to-back Oscar-winning scores for “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Place in the Sun,” the sparkling theme from “The Philadelphia Story” and the mysterious “Rebecca.” Talk about an embarrassment of riches. The overall impression, though, is one of the composer’s thoughtfulness in what he’s writing about—that brooding alto saxophone and later the lush strings that mark the love theme of “A Place in the Sun,” the ghostly Paramount theme during the scene on the back lot and the pseudo-Oriental accompaniment to Norma Desmond’s madness at the end of “Sunset Boulevard.” But best of all is the music that brings “The Bride of Frankenstein” to life, complete with that riot of a solo for ondes Martentot:

Next week: Korngold, Herrmann and Steiner!

Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Observations, Opera

Babbling and Strewing Flowers

Bits and pieces on an April afternoon:

It’s Titanic weekend, yet summer returned again, three weeks after its initial appearance in March. People are shopping in shorts, I’ve got the ceiling fans going, but it’s been weeks since we’ve had a soaking rain. This on top of a snowless winter spells one big rude awakening come June when water restrictions are sure to go into effect. There’s never a free lunch.

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When did drinking beverages in your seat during a theatrical performance become OK? I must have missed that memo, because I was ready to strangle the girl sitting next to me on Friday night at the Signature Theater during Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque.” All during the first act she kept taking a bottle of water out of her voluminous bag and squirting a mouthful into her yap, the plastic audibly snapping back into place as the contents diminished. Now this is a small theater—not even the size of a high school auditorium—and we were sitting Orchestra, Row D, not quite under the actors’ noses, but close enough to enjoy a palpable eye-lock as they delivered the occasional aside. Geez Louise, it’s bad enough the slurping and snapping is disturbing to me, who’s paid good money for a ticket, but it’s beyond rude to the actors who are trying to earn a living up on stage. Fortunately the play, about coping with death, was too much for Miss Hydration, who looked to be all of 22—she left at intermission, and the silence next door for Act Two was truly golden.

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It would be lovely if our pets lived longer lives. I took Roger in when he was all of five weeks old, dumped to fend for himself in Petsmart and discovered hiding under a pallet on the store’s busiest delivery day of the week. He was quite a handful—tough, stubborn and a devil to my other cats. To the day she died, my cat Pepper hissed every time she laid eyes on him; once I even saw her wake up from a nap, screw up her face, growl at him and promptly conk out again, her job done. Jake, another of my cats, who was such a little daddy, actually raised him, though every so often he’d look at me as if to say “I did the best I could, but the raw material wasn’t so hot.”

Roger’s personality started to smooth out by the time he turned five, even more as he ascended the feline pecking order when my older cats departed to the Big Litter Box in the Sky. He’s always been a snuggler, and loves to curl up on the back of the sofa as I watch TV, using my shoulder as a pillow. Now he’ll turn 14 in August, and suddenly he’s become a sage old man. He’s lost some weight, and while he still eats like a little piglet, a trip to the vet is in the offing. Hopefully he’s got a few more years ahead of him, because it’ll be very difficult to say goodbye to this guy.

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Samuel Barber

I’ve been a huge Samuel Barber fan for years, since I was about the age of 10 and heard his “Second Essay for Orchestra” live. Several years later, when I went opera crazy and borrowed scores from my junior high music teacher, I fell in love with “Vanessa” and nearly wore out the studio recording released by RCA Victor shortly after the work premiered at the Met in 1958. However, there’s a far better recording available, from a taped Metropolitan Opera broadcast aired during the work’s first season. It features the same cast as the RCA version—Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda and Giorgio Tozzi—but it’s like viewing a scene in color for the first time after years of being stuck  with black and white. It’s not just the energy generated by the singers performing in front of a live audience: Giorgio Tozzi is exceptionally funny as well as poignant as the Old Doctor, and Eleanor Steber’s portrait of the vain and self-deluding title character just burns in your memory. Perhaps the most astonishing part of her performance is the notoriously difficult “Skating Song” (coloratura-ed to the hilt) which few sopranos attempt when the work is staged. Yet Steber nails every single note. The box set is “Samuel Barber: Historical Recordings 1935-1960” ; the rewards, including Barber’s performance of his own “Dover Beach,” are endless.

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Thank you, Edna St. Vincent Millay, for “Spring” and one of the most vivid poetic images ever conceived (“It is not enough that yearly, down this hill/April/Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”) Ah, the enduring power of High School Accelerated English.

Posted in Observations

Random Thoughts on Titanic

Unless you’ve parted company with the non-stop news bombardment that characterizes our daily life, next weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The internet overflows with it, Jack and Rose are now at your local multiplex in 3D, and a blizzard of documentaries and at least one mini-series will commemorate the event on TV. So, in the immortal words of Howard Beale, Network‘s Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, “What does this have to do with the price of rice?” And more to the point, why is it this ship and this disaster that continue to hold the public imagination after so many years?

Titanic at the docks of Southampton.
Titanic at the docks of Southampton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think there are several factors, but one in particular stands out. Before I get to that, let me give you a bit of background: I’m writing this as a former member of two different Titanic-related interest groups (one of which I co-founded), and my perspective has changed a great deal over the years. Like many Titanic enthusiasts, I became interested in the disaster at a young age—I think I was 10 when I read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. I pretty much devoured every book and article I could find during the pre-internet dark ages, and after a B.A. in history and the passage of an unmentionable number of years, I can offer this:

Even before James Cameron’s epic, people had an incredibly romantic view of the ship, her passengers and crew. The Edwardian Age, its decor, its fashions and manners have always been a powerful draw, as any fan of The Forsyte Saga, Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey can attest (I’m a card-carrying groupie myself). The Titanic as microcosm is an enduring aspect of the story, with great wealth facing disaster alongside a poor immigrant population seeking a new life. And of course, many view Titanic through the lens of hindsight and see a world in sunset, with the horrors of the Great War looming ahead.

What’s missing in all this is an acknowledgment that the sinking of the Titanic is a safe disaster to be fascinated with. There were no cameras to record the ship in its death throes as there were in 1956 when the Andrea Doria sank; there are no tapes of the cries of the passengers in the water after the Titanic went down. In fact the only witnesses were the participants in the tragedy itself; there were no on-lookers as there were when the Eastland rolled over at its pier or the Cocoanut Grove nightclub became an inferno. It’s not a horror show. Yes, the deaths of more than 1500 people are acknowledged, but in almost abstract fashion, at an emotional distance. It’s become virtually pain-free. So there’s little to disturb an absorption in Captain Smith and his gallant officers and crew, or an identification with the Astors, the Guggenheims, the Wideners in First Class (Which reminds me of Crash Davis’s great observation in Bull Durham: “How come in former lifetimes everyone was someone famous? How come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmo?”).

In the final analysis the Titanic stands alone. It was neither Pearl Harbor nor the Challenger disaster;  it certainly wasn’t 9/11, whose victims we saw dying before our eyes in an eternal video loop, scarring the nation’s psyche in ways we’re still coming to terms with. Yet aspects of the Titanic tragedy will never fade from memory—how and why people act they way they do, especially under pressure; why so-called lessons are never learned; how wealth and the lack of it will always guarantee disparate treatment. This is what will endure, long after this anniversary is past.

Posted in Opera

Knowing Each Other’s Moves

Yesterday’s Met broadcast of L’elisir d’amore was both a delight for a rainy March afternoon and a great example of just how exciting it can be when singers are on the same wavelength. When Juan Diego Florez’s lovesick Nemorino brought on enough cheering for a second encore of “Una furtiva lagrima” (even one is a rare event), he charmingly reminded the audience that he wasn’t in this alone: “Miss Damrau is waiting.”  As his frequent colleague, Diana Damrau not only knows his moves, both musically and dramatically—her own artistry added to his makes the audience’s reward increase geometrically.

Le Comte Ory's menage a trois

There’s a special kind of energy when you see singers who’ve developed a solid performing rapport. Nowhere was this more evident than in last season’s Le Comte Ory at the Met, which added Joyce DiDonato to the Florez–Damrau combo, making this a tight-knit crew indeed. Joyce frequently sings with Diana in Mozart and Strauss, and when she’s not playing a boy, she and Juan Diego make beautiful music in the Rossini canon, most recently in La donna del lago (that’s “The Lady of the Lake” via Sir Walter Scott, who supplied the raw material for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.) The plot, as can be expected, is ridiculous—Damrau: a countess, Florez: a lecherous count, DiDonato: a page with (reciprocated) designs on the countess—all set during some Crusade or other. It really doesn’t matter, because the opera features some stunning duets and best of all, a trio during which our intrepid leads end up in bed together, demonstrating their physical as well as their musical flexibility (For those—ahem—keeping score, the mezzo gets the girl). I saw this in a “Live from the Met” HD telecast which thankfully is being released this week on DVD. Don’t miss it.

Sometimes, though, singers’ chemistry can throw things off-kilter. I was fortunate to see Frederica von Stade in Pelleas et Melisande when her Golaud was that master singer, Jose van Dam. Her concern and love for him as a colleague in the scene where Golaud recounts his return to the forest and his resulting injury were so apparent that it somewhat upset the applecart. You wanted to say to her, “No, honey. You fall in love with the tenor, not the baritone.” On the other hand, rapport can rescue a performance. Several years ago I saw Don Carlo at the Met with James Morris as Philip and Thomas Hampson as Rodrigo. While the other roles were taken by singers most charitably described as serviceable, those two gents totally made the performance. When Philip and Rodrigo faced off to discuss the uprising in Flanders and the problems in Philip’s own court, you saw two pros just go at it—two charismatic singers acting the hell out of the scene. Had they not been around, I might have bailed, even though Don Carlo is one of Verdi’s best.

"Beware the Grand Inquisitor!"

And ultimately, there’s nothing better than seeing two romantic leads with chemistry. I’m looking forward to Anna Netrebko and Piotr Bezcala in Manon at the Met in two weeks; all reports indicate that they burn the house down. Which reminds me of a performance of Don Giovanni I saw many years ago at the New York City Opera in the old Frank Corsaro production. Justino Diaz was the Don; a wonderful soprano named Ellen Shade was the Donna Anna, and the two of them generated so much electricity in their scenes together that the air in the auditorium seemed to crackle. I’d like to wish for more of the same more often, but then it wouldn’t be as special—right?