Posted in Opera

Opera Bound

My, Peter Gelb shot himself in the foot this week, didn’t he? First he leans on the editor of “Opera News” to declare that no further reviews of Met productions would appear on its pages. Not coincidentally, this immediately followed an issue of the magazine that featured both a critical write-up of the Met’s new “Götterdammerung” and an opinion piece by Brian Kellow panning the Met’s approach to the entire Ring cycle. Truth be told: (a) not that many people liked the Machine or Robert Lepage’s conception of the work, and (b) what appeared in “Opera News” barely holds a candle to Alex Ross’s review in “The New Yorker,” in which, among other things, he called the new “Götterdammerung”, “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”  Ouch. The Gelb Ban lasted a day, during which much blasting occurred on the ‘net, and the Great One was forced to reverse himself.

Questions of hissy fits and censorship aside, I saw “Das Rheingold” and “Götterdammerung” in the house, and I loved them. I’d never seen either opera live before, and “Götterdammerung” in particular blew my mental circuits. Wagner has grown on me over the years—prior to this season I’d seen “Die Meistersinger,” “Lohengrin” and “Die Fliegende Hollander” (loved the first, was amazed by the second, but had a tough time sitting through the intermission-less third). I’ve been an opera-goer since the age of 13, but my Wagner love didn’t really come to the fore until I saw “Tristan und Isolde” several seasons ago, with Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner. In a word, transcendent.

Despite recently joining the “I Heart Richard” Club, I can’t say that my Wagner collection, which alas is presently limited, contains my favorite opera recordings. For me there are two separate lists: “My Favorite Operas,” into which, for example, the Ring is clearly headed, and “My Favorite Opera Recordings” which are those I find myself listening to most frequently. The two lists can’t and don’t always intersect. “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Der Rosenkavalier” are among my favorite operas, but I’ve got all three presently in dry dock due to listening fatigue. “Lulu” and “Peter Grimes” are fabulous, but I need to see as well as hear these for the fullest enjoyment.

“The New Yorker” recently published Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s list of her favorite recordings, and there was some snarking along the lines of “How can she call herself an opera lover and not list any Wagner?” Evidently I’m pretty much on the same page as the good Justice, because my list, with the opera recordings I’m relaxing with most often these days, looks like this:

Handel: “Ariodante”; Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Sabina Puertolas, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Brook, Alan Curtis conducting Il Complesso Barocco (Virgin Classics). Simply superb musicianship.

Handel, “Julius Caesar”; Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra (RCA). Yeah, yeah, I hear the purists screaming over Julius Rudel’s hash-up of the score, but what Beverly Sills does as Cleopatra is super-human.

Barber, “Vanessa”; Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda, Giorgio Tozzi, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (RCA). I’m a diehard Samuel Barber fan and always will be. While the live Met broadcast recording of this opera from its premiere season is dramatically preferable, this studio version with the same cast is cleaner in execution.

Puccini, “Tosca”; Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor de Sabata conducting the La Scala Orchestra (EMI), and/or Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Cornell MacNeill, Kurt Adler conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Sony). They’re both live and they’re both fabulous. On any given day I’ll flip a coin.

Verdi, “Il Trovatore”;  Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (DGG). The famed Salzburg recording, and even in mono it lives up to the hype.

Verdi, “La Traviata”; Maria Callas, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni, Franco Ghione conducting the Lisbon National Theatre Orchestra (EMI). Nobody ever broke my heart like Maria Callas singing “Addio del passato”.

Verdi, “Falstaff”; Giuseppe Valdengo, Herva Nelli, Teresa Stich-Randall, Cloe Elmo, Frank Guarrero, Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony (RCA). I love the von Karajan recording with Tito Gobbi, but nothing matches Toscanini’s take on “Tutto nel mondo.”

Strauss, “Ariadne auf Naxos”; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Rudolf Schock, Hermann Prey, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). It’s tough to argue with perfection.

There are other opera recordings I’ve heard recently that intrigue me, especially Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” with Ian Bostridge, and various Ring CDs which may make the list. And I’m right in the middle of watching the new DVD of the Covent Garden production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon” with Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, that’s charming beyond belief.  Not to mention the fact that the list of my favorite non-opera recordings goes on forever. We’ll just save these for later.

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Posted in Music, Opera

Going for Baroque

I was never much for baroque music. I did make exceptions, though—as a school-age violinist, I liked to play Bach and Vivaldi because they kept string players very busy. And when I discovered opera as a teenager, that year’s hot recording was the New York City Opera version of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” starring Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. It didn’t matter to me that this was a version patched together by conductor Julius Rudel that made baroque scholars howl, what with the re-ordering and musical transposition of arias. Along with nearly every opera fan I knew, I listened to Cleopatra’s arias over and over again, just to hear Beverly Sills’ ornamentation and her ability to seemingly turn trills inside out. Aside from that, I found baroque music and especially baroque opera rather boring—it struck me as too repetitious and too much “stand and sing.”

Then, because of the work I started doing several years ago, I fell in love with baroque opera.

Let me explain: when I work as a contract attorney and not as a solo practitioner, I spend most of my time reviewing documents during the discovery phase of litigation. Since this means I’m a professional snoop looking for smoking guns, this process, always interesting at the beginning of a project, does have a tendency to become more and more routine over time. Music helps to keep me focused, but there’s a hitch—there are certain things I just can’t listen to while I’m working. For example, Mahler is OK, but Wagner is too cold; French and Italian opera are perfect, but Britten is out because his operas are in English, which is far too distracting (a major pain when I had a ticket to the Met’s new production of “Peter Grimes” and couldn’t brush up before the performance). Jazz is fine as are Broadway cast albums, and Stravinsky, especially “The Rite of Spring” can always keep me going. And baroque opera goes well not only with doc review, but on the commuter train in the morning when all is mostly quiet and “gentle” is the word.

I’m really enjoying Handel these days. He always takes non-obvious choices in his writing—you think you know where he’s going with a phrase and he’ll take a 90-degree turn instead. His “Alcina” is a wonderful work, filled with great opportunities for singers and the usual quotient of gender-bending trouser roles, but for me the highlight is Morgana’s gorgeous “Ama sospiri.” Natalie Dessay puts it away here:

I’m also getting more familiar with “Ariodante.” I’ll be writing more about Joyce DiDonato in the future, but for now take a moment to listen to her “Dopo notte” from that opera. The musicianship and artistry that mark this performance are amazing.

I still love “Giulio Cesare,” especially the recent Glyndebourne production reminiscent of the British raj. David McVicar staged it Bollywood style, and it’s a total hoot. This is available on DVD, and it’s more fun to watch than most movies. William Christie is the conductor, and the singers include Sarah Connolly (an excellent Caesar), Patricia Bardon (a refreshingly young Cornelia), Christopher Dumaux (wonderfully bitchy as Ptolemy), Angelika Kirschlager (hot-headed Sesto) and as Cleopatra, Danielle DeNiese–not known as Dancin’ Danielle for nothing–here at the conclusion of “Da tempeste.”

I just ordered a recording of Vivaldi’s “Ercole sul Termondonte” which features not only Ms. DiDonato and a bunch of crackerjack singers—there’s also Philippe Jaroussky, a countertenor who sings in the soprano range. Even after you’ve heard it, you won’t believe it. I’ll be reporting back.