Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Opera

Brain Bits for a Delayed Spring

It’s March 24th and the weatherman is predicting a snow storm starting tomorrow afternoon, just in time for tomorrow evening’s commute. Mother Nature must be fuming.

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Rise StevensI never heard Risë Stevens sing at the Met—her operatic career ended in 1962—but her artistic reputation was the gold standard for American singers for years. She was a cross-over artist decades before the term was coined, what with her many appearances on radio and television, not to mention her film career, which included “Going My Way,” in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald.

Her voice was indeed unique. Although she succeeded as a mezzo-soprano, her contralto beginnings were always evident in that dark, rich sound. Not many singers have the distinction of being the go-to artist for two such wildly divergent roles as the 17 year-old Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” and the ultimate seductress, Carmen, but she was, for two decades.

If you’d like to hear her at her best, I’d recommend the live 1952 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Carmen.” This was the peak of her career, and while she made two studio recordings of the opera, neither match the intensity of the broadcast. Richard Tucker is incredible as Don José, and when he and Ms. Stevens have their final confrontation, your hair stands on end. I just love what she does with the role—she’s as far removed from cliché as you can possibly get. Unlike other Carmens who tend to snarl the line, her “Non, je ne t’aime plus” is delivered in a dismissive monotone. Her indifference fuels José’s rage, which she knowingly triggers in fulfillment of the fate she had learned during the Card Scene. It’s a wonderfully unified portrayal, something that more than a few Carmens of today could learn from.

Many thanks, Risë Stevens. Rest in peace.

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Speaking of live performances, I was recently listening to and bowled over by “Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute”, the first in a much too long line of galas, celebrations and performances dedicated to his work (For the record, I like a number of his shows, but his worshippers are in a league of crazy all their own). The recording marks a 1973 benefit, and the talent could not have been better.

The standouts are all “Follies” alumnae who reprise their songs from that show, but with the knowledge and zest that comes when a performer has lived with a role for a while. Once of the downsides of original Broadway cast albums of that era is that they were usually recorded on the Sunday following the show’s opening. Actors like Alexis Smith, for whom singing was a bit of a stretch, were short-changed by the process—comparing her “Could I Leave You?” on the original cast album with her rendition at the Sondheim tribute two years later is an eye-opener. She had had the benefit of months of performances and she nails the song cold, both musically and dramatically. While you would expect Dorothy Collins, a singer by trade, to perform well on the Sondheim album, she exceeds your highest expectations. Though it sounds like she had a slight cold at the time, she delivers a searing “Losing My Mind” in addition to a delightful “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which opens the gala. The lady certainly knew her stuff.

And then there’s Ethel Shutta, singing “Broadway Baby.” Her presence is a reminder that the distance between “Follies,” perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s best achievement, and its genesis will continue to grow, to the detriment of the work. You see, Ethel Shutta had been featured in the Ziegfeld Follies back in the 20’s, and when she, along with a number of other actors, was cast in Sondheim’s “Follies,” she brought a performing style to the show that was genuine and true to the era. These performers are all gone now, of course, and the best we can hope for whenever the show is revived is an educated imitation. Most likely, though, we’ll end up with some “Glee”-like shtick. Yuck.

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Variety is not only the spice of life, it saves your sanity. New York’s classical station, WQXR, is in the midst of drowning itself in Bach for ten days. I thought their annual “Beethoven Month” in November was enough, but “Bach 360” is camped on my last nerve. One more cantata, one more passion, and I’ll be losing my mind. Not a good idea, folks.

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