Posted in Music

Master Singer

The Metropolitan Opera’s online pay-per-view series, “Met Stars Live in Concert,” has been a boon during COVID-19 times. This past Saturday it was Joyce DiDonato’s turn, live from the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, Germany. I’ve been a fan of hers for years, and aside from her artistry, I appreciate her advocacy for arts education and especially her generosity in streaming an impromptu performance of Werther excerpts with Piotr Beczala from her living room during the early days of the pandemic shutdown. I had been looking forward to seeing the two of them perform this opera at the Met at the end of March, but hearing them in fabulous voice via streaming went a long way toward curing the disappointment of missing what would have been perfect casting.

So let’s turn to Saturday’s event. In all honesty I may run out of superlatives before the end of this blog post.

Accompanied by Carrie-Ann Matheson, pianist, a wonderfully sensitive musical partner, and members of Il Pomo D’Oro, a baroque ensemble with whom she frequently appears, Ms. DiDonato’s performance was less of a recital than a dramatic presentation. Focusing on themes of loss, joy in nature and love, the three sections of the program, titled “I Dream a World,”proved that the intelligence displayed in the selection of music amply matched the brilliance of performance.

I was somewhat surprised that Ms. DiDonato began with back-to-back farewell arias from Monteverdi and Berlioz operas. Usually a recital leads off with something upbeat, but these selections, especially Didon’s final scene from Les Troyens, rested entirely at the mournful end of the spectrum. However, her uncommonly bright sound certainly displayed the piece in its best light. These arias were an excellent prelude to what followed: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”), the last song in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder cycle, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. That Joyce, in her hushed delivery, did it justice is an understatement.

A lovely a capella rendition of the traditional “Oh Shenandoah” opened the next portion of the program. I especially enjoyed her insertion of a musical turn in the last chorus, highly reminiscent of Irish folk music (If I remember Robert McNeil’s “The Story of English” correctly, this is accurate, given the origins of the Appalachian settlers).  The DiDonato touch was wonderfully in evidence for “Dopo notte atra e funesta,” a showstopper of an aria from Handel’s Ariodante in which she was accompanied by members of Il Pomo D’Oro. Prior to this recital I had heard her sing this aria on disk and in a live concert performance of the opera, yet each time the set of vocal embellishments was more complex. And it was so much fun to see her and the instrumentalists bopping along to the syncopation of the music,

The last section of the program opened with the world premiere of a new work, Kenyatta Hughes’ “I Dream a World,” with text by Langston Hughes (no relation), which gave its title to this recital. I enjoyed the reflective nature of the music—it underscored the powerful language and emotion of the poem to a fine degree. But it was what followed that turned out to be my favorite part of the program: a pairing of “Voi che sapete” from Le Nozze di Figaro and that evocative Edith Piaf chanson, “La vie en rose.” Joyce DiDonato is one of those singers whose pleasure in performing is so evident that she easily carries the audience along with her. You could sense her enjoyment in portraying Cherubino’s befuddlement in the Mozart aria, which she made sound incredibly fresh, as well as indulging in a more sophisticated mode with the French song. It was a welcome surprise that she programmed the latter—it was great to hear her display some jazz chops. Following a heartfelt pitch to her audience to write their elected officials to urge more funding for arts education, Ms. DiDonato then wrapped up with the haunting “Canción al árbol del olvido” by Alberto Ginastera and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel. So to sum up: Works in five languages spanning five centuries performed by an artist at the peak of her career. It never gets better than this. Thank you, Joyce, and brava!

This performance will be available on demand at through September 25. Enjoy.

Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!


It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Music, Television

Brain Bits for a Frigid February

While we’re awaiting yet another storm on [insert day of the week here], some brain bits are definitely in order. Even in the face of arctic temperatures, I can still muster good cheer. So I’ll refrain from trashing the season finale of “Last Tango in Halifax” (much remedial work is needed for sure) and the Met’s new production of “Iolanta” (“meh” is the word, though the second half of the double bill, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is absolutely riveting).

So let’s get on with the good stuff, shall we?

Joyce Brentano
© The New York Times

I recently had the pleasure of a spectacular evening of musicianship at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet. The quartet had the first half of the program, which included Charpentier’s “Concert pour quatre parties de violes,” a dance suite, and the iconic Debussy String Quartet. This was the first time I’d heard the latter in live performance, and what an experience. It’s like seeing the whole of 20th century music stretching out before you like an audio super-highway.

The Brentanos can sing, which is a talent I admire without end. My days as a school-age musician taught me the most difficult thing to learn as a string player is phrasing. If you sing or play a wind instrument, it comes naturally. However, it’s a more difficult proposition when you’re learning violin or cello, since they’re not breath- actvated. But to listen to the Brentanos you’d never know there was a difference.

Ms. DiDonato and the Quartet opened the second half with the Aaron Copland-esque “MotherSongs,” an arrangement of works from The Lullaby Project. But the highlight of the evening was Jake Heggie’s “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” the New York premiere of a song cycle originally composed with Ms. DiDonato in mind. I was curious how they’d set up on stage since I knew Joyce would have to be able to have eye contact with the first violinist, at a minimum. As you can see from the photograph, the solution was an easy one. Instead of a solo singer accompanied by string quartet, we saw a single entity—a quintet, in which every member interacted with each other.

Quite honestly I enjoyed the expertise of the collaboration almost as much as the music. Joyce DiDonato is not only a great singer—she’s a superlative musician as well, and honored both text and score in the performance of Heggie’s sketches of the life and works of sculptor Camille Claudel. Particularly ear-catching were “Shakuntala,” with its Middle Eastern exoticism, “La petite chatelaine,” an ode to Camille’s aborted child, and the Epilogue, in which she’s visited at the asylum by her friend Jessie Lipscomb, so many years after her confinement. Her reminiscing about their student days and the momentary glimpse of the life she might have had draw the cycle to an exceptionally poignant close.

What artistry. After that, I didn’t mind my frozen walk to the subway (almost).

At long last...the showdown we were waiting for
At long last…the showdown we were waiting for

An actor any less talented than Gillian Anderson wouldn’t be able to hold our attention the way she does in the second season of “The Fall.” During the glacial pace of the first episode all I could think was “Lord, this is slow.” But then Stella Gibson (Ms. Anderson) took center stage and all snapped into place.

Stella maintains her laser-like focus in pursuit of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), but cracks in the facade begin to appear. Her dreams turn threatening, haunted by his shadowy presence. Her guilt is overwhelming when Rose Stagg is kidnapped, and her tears as she views this woman on video Paul posts on the internet are shocking–you just don’t expect that from her. Yet old habits remain; her libido survives intact. While she admits that her pass at Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) was “inappropriate,” she picks out and beds yet another young studly cop (Colin Morgan). One thing you can say for Stella–she’s definitely got good taste.

I was intrigued by a number of things during this season of “The Fall,” not the least of which was the detail of the police work shown. Granted, it didn’t always pan out, as witness the cop falling through the ceiling of Paul’s bedroom (I have to admit I had a good laugh over that, since I did the same thing at my house last year while checking on the heating unit in the attic). But the sheer doggedness of the detective work pays off, and along the way there are chilling moments: Paul’s grief counseling session with Annie Brawley, whose brother he had murdered before assaulting her, and that eerie sense of dislocation when one of Stella’s detectives demonstrates how Paul parroted his boss’s remarks while the latter fired him.

At the last episode we were once again left with both cliffhangers and a burning desire that the BBC commission another series of “The Fall.” Paul may or may not survive, the erstwhile babysitter, Katie Benedetto, is a virtual Charles Manson girl in her worship of Paul, and Stella’s depths are just waiting to be explored (We already know she has daddy issues. Who knows what else lurks in that psyche?).

Let’s hope for much more of TV’s best thriller.

● ● ●


Do you ever wonder about the turning points of your life? What things would have been like had you made a different decision, taken a different train, stayed home on a given night instead of going out, or vice versa?

Kate Atkinson’s engrossing “Life After Life” is a masterful exploration of this premise as we follow Ursula Todd, born in 1910 (or is she?) through the multiple versions of her life. While there are certain constants in every scenario—her odious older brother, her adored sister and younger brother—the outcomes vary tremendously.

We’re far from smooth sailing here. Ursula’s life seems to snag at particularly sticky points, generating more and more do-overs until things turn right: There’s her difficult birth. That rogue wave at the seashore. Her encounter with that awful friend of her brother. The wall that crumbles (or doesn’t) during the Blitz.

What’s particularly fun is that Atkinson primes you to look for those turning points. For example, you wonder if that man who, at the height of the Blitz, watches Ursula work her crosswords and hands her his card as a recruiter of puzzle-solving whizzes isn’t Alan Turing. You relish the fact that as a teen-ager Ursula comes to realize that her occasional feelings of dread are premonitions that what has happened in a previous version of her life may happen yet again. Atkinson’s story leaves you wanting more, especially to know what happens after certain of Ursula’s “deaths”.

Needless to say I loved “Life After Life.” I haven’t read such a sweet pay-off of an ending in a very long time. Fortunately the story isn’t over, since there’s a companion volume in the works. Publication day can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Baseball, Music, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Cool November

Less than two months left in 2014, but the entertainment couldn’t be better.

Late to the party again, but I’ve been meaning to say a word or two about the season-ending episode of “Masters of Sex” which aired several weeks ago. That double twist was totally delicious. First, learning that Ethan Haas, Bill’s former rival, was the man behind Dr. Kaufman, Bill’s current competitor in the race to publish, only to be capped by the appearance of former Provost Barton as the man who caused the squelch at Bill’s request. Each plot turn was an unexpected pleasure.

These developments, plus Ginny’s losing custody of her kids (it’ll never last—her ex is a flake), should get “Masters of Sex” started on a dramatic Season Three when it returns. I can’t wait.


World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game SevenWhat a delightful end to October.

As a result of concentrated lobbying by her many fans, Joyce Di Donato, Kansas City’s own, was invited to sing the National Anthem prior to start of Game 7 of the World Series. She did it a cappella, tossing in a couple of blue notes and at least one simplified Handel progression. Her rendition was very much reflective of her personality—no muss, no fuss, but straightforward and straight from the heart. Brava. Too bad the Royals, this year’s Cinderella team, didn’t complete the dream by winning.

This is definitely Joyce’s New York year. She’s one of the artists featured in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives Series, and thus far we’ve had her “Alcina” in concert version (I took a pass—after last season’s “Theodora,” I wasn’t ready for another four-hour baroque extravaganza sans stage action) and a lovely recital that was streamed live and which will remain on the Medici website until the beginning of February. The unifying subject is Venice; I found the second half of the program, featuring songs by Michael Hand and Reynaldo Hahn, to be more engaging than the first.

Joyce returns for two more Carnegie Hall performances in the Perspectives Series and of course (finally!), “La Donna del Lago” at the Met. Good times ahead.



Yes, I saw it.

I attended the second performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, and to say it was quite an experience doesn’t exactly do it justice.

Security was even tighter than in the weeks post-9/11. Police cars lined the curb in front of Lincoln Center; parade barricades restricted foot traffic onto the plaza. Although the number of protesters across the street seemed minimal, several stood at the barricades speaking to the police while holding their signs that labelled Peter Gelb a Nazi, among other pleasantries. Uniformed police and Lincoln Center security seemed to be everywhere. In the opera house patrons were required to check all briefcases, totes and back packs; pocketbooks were thoroughly searched and detector wands were in use. A number of men in suits wearing security badges patrolled the lobbies as well as the auditorium during the performance.

Despite all this, the atmosphere was more subdued than tense. Once the performance started and the first of John Adams’ extraordinary choruses began, the focus became the music. The opera played somewhat differently than I had anticipated. That Bach’s Passions served as a model for Adams was quite evident; I was also reminded of Berlioz’s “secular oratorio,” “The Damnation of Faust,” in which the artists spend more time singing at each other rather than to each other. “Klinghoffer” is very contemplative; most of what you hear takes place in the characters’ heads. Only when Leon Klinghoffer confronts one of the terrorists who responds in diatribe, and at the very end, when the Captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband has been murdered, do characters truly interact. Actually the chorus is the true leading character in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” By turns portraying Palestinians, Israelis and passengers on the Achille Lauro, it has the most extraordinary music in the opera, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was perfection.

It speaks volumes about the state of the world that a mob of willfully ignorant morons, the majority of whom know nothing of the art form and in fact needed a map to find the opera house in front of which they protested, could halt an HD telecast intended for people who have loved opera for decades. I’m one of them, and my biggest regret over this entire controversy is that the national and indeed, the international, opera audience was deprived of the ability to experience this production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” I can only hope that the Met management has learned that caving to bullies is not how an arts organization should be run.



I recently attended an incredible performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by the Phildaelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Yannick Nézut-Seguin was a man with a plan, shaping the work as few conductors do. I don’t always agree with his vision of a work, but I always respect his choices—the man is frequently amazing.

In this case I was glad we were promised a resurrection, because the first movement was fierce, unrelenting, and in fact quite scary to hear on Halloween night. There was total commitment from the orchestra throughout the performance; the brass, especially the trombone section, was extraordinary. Nézut-Seguin has the pulse of this work—I especially enjoyed his reading of the “Knaben Wunderhorn” movements. The soloists were Angela Meade, whose soprano really did fill the auditorium, and Sarah Connolly, who performed a lovely “Urlicht.” The bravos and curtain calls were well-earned indeed.

Next up: Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtstensk” at the Met. Looking forward to seeing that bad girl do her stuff.

Posted in Opera

Mezzo Magic

Susan Graham
Susan Graham as Dido

I had the pleasure this past week of seeing the Metropolitan Opera on its best behavior. And not once, but twice. This doesn’t always happen—as yesterday’s broadcast of “Il Trovatore” can attest—but when it does, the results are amazing.

First up was the live HD telecast of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” that five-and-a-half hour marathon of war and peace. I was supposed to see this ten years ago at the Met, but a blizzard stopped me from even getting to the train station (Had I made it into New York, I would have seen the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido. Talk about a missed opportunity). So after a very long intermission I finally got to see this epic, the length of which rivals “Götterdammerung.”

Susan Graham’s performance as Dido was astonishing. It’s not often that a singer’s voice, intelligence and characterization all come together at such a high level of artistry. I had seen her in “La Damnation de Faust,” I’ve got her recording of “Béatrice et Benedict,” two other Berlioz operas, but what she brought to “Les Troyens” was in another realm altogether. Her voice has lost virtually nothing over the years; she was the Queen of Carthage.

Fortunately her Aeneas was worthy of her. Bryan Hymel, a 33-year old native of Lousiana, stepped in to replace Marcello Giordani, and the result couldn’t have been better. He’s a powerful tenor who should have a great career ahead of him—he can act and he’s got presence. When he and Susan Graham sang their love duet in Act Four, you believed it. Joyce DiDonato was the host of the HD telecast, and I particularly enjoyed the intermission interview with Graham and Hymel. It seemed to be refreshingly unscripted—the two mezzos, alluding to their many trouser roles, traded joking compliments (“You look good in a dress.” “So do you.”) and the discussion that followed regarding Hymel’s Met debut in such a killer role was a great deal of fun.

Three days after the telecast I saw Joyce DiDonato as Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Met. If ever there was a performer who held an audience in the palm of her hand, she did. No coughing or program rustling from the audience when DiDonato sang an aria—the entire auditorium went dead quiet just to hear what embellishments she would bring to the vocal line. The intense attention has been well-earned: she’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard on the opera stage. When she sings a line I can almost see the notes on the music staff. DiDonato certainly delivers.

"Maria Stuarda"--the Confrontation
“Maria Stuarda”–the Confrontation

However, I found the opera itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the first half, ending with Maria’s hurling “vil bastarda!” at Queen Elizabeth (soprano Elza van den Heever with shaved head in her Met debut), is excellent, the second half, after the Elizabeth/Leicester duet, does drag. And I wasn’t all that crazy about the production, especially the last two scenes. When did properly lighting a scene become a lost art? Yes, I know Maria is imprisoned and I don’t expect the set to look like high noon, but the audience should be able to see who’s on stage with her. I thought Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” was a lot more fun. Anna gets a historically inaccurate mad scene before she marches off to the headsman, which I prefer to Maria’s saintly exit, no matter how lovely the music.

There’s been some carping about “Maria”‘s casting switcheroo. Although mezzos have portrayed the title role in the past, it’s usually a soprano Maria paired with a mezzo Elizabeth, a role Joyce DiDonato has in fact sung. Yes, she’s transposed some of the music down, but then Joan Sutherland used to transpose arias up to put the line in her soprano range. And is total adherence to historical tradition always a plus or even feasible? The countertenors singing today are not castrati, who were able to produce a sound the likes of which we’ll never hear. Luckily no one gives up that much for their art these days.

And speaking of tradition and departures therefrom, the Met’s new production of “Rigoletto,” set in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, will soon make its debut. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music, Opera


In dressing, the blessing is not all the attire
It’s the way that you wear the clothes
And bear the clothes upon you
It’s the way that you air the clothes
It’s all in the poise and pose…

It is never the thing that you wear
It’s the way it is worn.

George M. Cohan, “All in the Wearing”

The Yankee Doodle Dandy may or may not have been an opera fan, but his lyric has time and again proved to be as applicable to musical performance as it is to fashion.

Maria Callas as Norma

Here’s an example: a number of years ago I saw Jane Eaglen sing “Norma” at the Met. You’ll recall that for a while at least the lady was pure “go to” for all the leading Wagner soprano roles. But she had another idea, as many dramatic sopranos often do, and became infatuated with one Vincenzo Bellini. Well, suffice it to say that Norma sure deserved better that night—Ms. Eaglen had absolutely no sense of line, the Number One prerequisite for singing this composer. It sounds odd, but matters were actually made worse by her Adalgisa, Daniela Barcellona, whose tremendous bel canto style blew Eaglen’s Norma right off the stage. The capper came at intermission when I dropped by the Lincoln Center gift shop. There the staff was bitchily lovingly playing Maria Callas, in all her glory, singing “Casta Diva.” Ouch. You’d have to be unconscious not to hear the difference between a mistress of the genre and one who had absolutely no idea how to sing this type of music.

This happens more often in performance than you’d think, though fortunately not as disastrously as the night Vincenzo was done wrong. Baroque opera is of course very popular these days, but while many singers are called, few are chosen. It demands excellent musicianship and a certain style. As an illustration, one of my favorite opera recordings, Handel’s “Ariodante”, conducted by Alan Curtis, features a roster of singers who know precisely how baroque should be performed. They seem to ride the music the same way a surfer rides a wave. It’s exhilarating. Although other singers can sing the notes, they lack the sense of rhythm and phrase that Handel demands.

This was nowhere more evident than yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall when Joyce DiDonato took the stage to present her “Drama Queens” program with Il Complesso Barocco. Notice I said “with” and not “accompanied by” when referring to this wonderful group of musicians. This was a total collaboration between singer and orchestra, led by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. The concert, featuring arias from DiDonato’s new CD, began somewhat slowly—too many lamentations by too many bereaved ladies—but the last selection on the first half, a wickedly a tempo aria by Orlandini, found Joyce in terrific form and busting some moves during the orchestral sections. (Baroque is irresistible for dancing—it swings. My friends and I used to do the Jerk to Handel in junior high music appreciation class when Mr. Asprey wasn’t looking). The second half of the concert was pure magic, featuring back-to-back Cleopatra arias by Hasse and Handel. For those like myself who grew up on Beverly Sills, DiDonato’s “Piangerò la sorte mia” is a revelation. Her singing of the sicilliana, “Madre diletta,” from Giovanni Porta’s “Ifigenia in Aulide,” seemed to suspend time. What a musician. And for the fashionistas who may be reading this, she wore the above red dress, which was accessorized by a matching shawl, a short jacket, a bustle and epaulets (for Cleopatra) at various points during the concert. And speaking of style, the men of the orchestra wore red socks to match—a lovely touch indeed.

It’s not just opera or classical music that requires this type of skill. The other day I listened to the original Broadway cast album of “1776” featuring one of my favorite actors, William Daniels, as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and a very young Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson. Check out Betty’s version of “He Plays the Violin.” No one has ever done it better. Yes, she’s helped by that suggestive violin spiccato, but her phrasing, her sense of going with the music, the way she colors certain words—that’s an artist who can sing not just the notes but who can create the musical experience the way it should be heard. The “way it should be worn.”

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.

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?

Posted in Music

Berlioz’s Summer Nights


By turns exuberant, mournful and lyrical, Berlioz’s song cycle, Les Nuits d’Ete, is a stunning work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. I had the pleasure of hearing it performed at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night by Joyce DiDonato and Alan Gilbert, conducting the New York Philharmonic. The results were breath-taking.

The older I get, the more I enjoy Berlioz. What’s even better is there are more and more opportunities to hear Berlioz, since works such as Les Troyens, La Damnation de Faust and Benvenuto Cellini are increasingly available in the opera house, and more rarities are appearing on the concert stage. Back in my high school and college days, it was basically Symphonie fantastiqueHarold in Italy and over and out. Which is a shame because Berlioz’s works tease the ear both in terms of musical color as well as the unexpected phrase. He apparently loved the middle voice—in addition to the featured viola in Harold in Italy, there are superlative roles for mezzo-soprano in the operas I just mentioned, along with Beatrice in his lovely take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice et Benedick. (Massenet was another composer whose operatic roles keep mezzos in high standing: Werther’s Charlotte; Cherubin; and not one but two star parts in his version of Cinderella—Cendrillon and her Prince Charming).

Joyce DiDonato’s appearance turned into something of a victory lap, given her recent Grammy award for her CD, “Diva Divo”—she even wore her Grammy gown (check out the photo). The audience almost broke into cheers when she made her entrance, and then the magic started (Note to Joyce: Next time get Alan Gilbert to carry a handkerchief in his jacket pocket for you. While a lady never sweats, only glows, we know Les nuits d’ete is a concentrated sing and the audience will understand your need to blot).

Originally composed for voice and piano, Les nuits d’ete uses a small orchestra, not that much larger than chamber size with the number of woodwinds reduced and trumpets, trombones and percussion eliminated. The six songs that comprise the work are set to poems by Theophile Gautier, and make considerable demands on the singer in terms of vocal color and emotion. The opening song, “Villanelle” found DiDonato giving full voice to the exuberance of summer. Her performance of the next song, “Le Spectre de la rose,” the story of a flower worn by a young girl to a ball, was perfection. There was almost a collective sigh when she finished, and she seemed to take a bit of extra time to compose herself before continuing on. DiDonato may have exceeded this performance with her rendition of the last song, “L’Ile inconnue,” a “let’s sail away from it all” challenge delivered by a young man to his love. Joyce may have been wearing a strapless gown, but for that song she was Le Comte Ory‘s swaggering Isolier once again, with the cocky grin and reckless affect. It was obvious she loved singing it, and loved being able to share her delight with the audience. My immediate thought after the last note was “Gee, can’t we hear that one again?”, which apparently everyone else in the house felt too, because they wouldn’t stop applauding. Sadly, no encore—after being called out about five times for a bow, she finally left the stage to the disappointment of many members of the audience, including myself.

Brava, Joyce—now get into the studio and record it!

Posted in Opera

“Enchanted” Afternoon

Saturday afternoon’s live HD telecast of The Enchanted Island not only proved a delightful trip to Baroque opera-land—it demonstrated yet again that critics are incredibly biased against productions that are just plain fun.

Daniels & DiDonato…..Divine

As touted in the Met’s promotional materials, this work is a pastiche meant to emulate the sort of evening’s entertainment frequently cooked up by 17th and 18th century composers. The recipe goes something like this: take a stock plot involving at least two sets of lovers, swipe arias, ensembles and choruses from several different works and/or composers, throw in a mythological god or two and voila! Instant opera. In the case of The Enchanted Island, dramatist Jeremy Sams produced a mash-up of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flavored by the music of Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau, among others. The result was incredibly witty and engaging, and just to thing to see on a snowy January day.

A lot of criticism has been directed at Met General Manager Peter Gelb for not scheduling an honest to God, full-length Baroque opera, i.e., the real deal instead of a pastiche. I’m just guessing here, but to me it seems obvious that management wanted to shoot the works by having Joyce DiDonato and David Daniels appear in the same opera. If so, there’s a slight hitch—she’s a mezzo, he’s a countertenor, so they both tend to sing the same roles in Baroque opera, i.e., heroic leads. The problems of casting and repertoire are thus solved when you build the house from the ground up. Another issue in the critical press has been the nature of the libretto—too contemporary, too vernacular, too silly. This is all very subjective, of course, but I loved it. I laughed out loud at several scenes, and if the naysayers couldn’t enjoy the sight of mismatched couple Lysander and Miranda jumping up and down with glee because their names rhymed (sort of), all I can say is some people need to lighten up.

I’ll get to the singers in a moment, but I think top honors should go to conductor William Christie, who also selected the works included in the opera. Beyond that, what he did with the orchestra was amazing. It doesn’t often play this type of music, but what we heard was nothing short of stylish, superlative musicianship. The number of players was of course significantly reduced—probably half the regular complement of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, one set of tympani. The only time I can remember hearing brass was when Neptune made his entrance, and that was just a brief fanfare. Bravi tutti!

While I’m still not entirely sold on countertenors in the opera house, David Daniels did a masterful job as Prospero. He had two achingly beautiful arias, his entrance piece taken from a Vivaldi cantata, and better still, the aria that closed the first act, a Handel work featuring a stunning bassoon obligato. Lisette Oropesa played what I think of as the Dawn Upshaw role, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and her aria, from a Handel cantata, was lovely (by the way, the full playlist, so to speak, is available on the Met’s website). Dancing Danielle deNiese sang Ariel, and while she was cute as a little red wagon, her voice above the staff has gotten incredibly shrill. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was Caliban, and his extraordinary makeup and costume couldn’t conceal what a tremendous singer he is. Placido Domingo showed up as Neptune and demonstrated that while he’s still got it vocally, Baroque is not exactly his metier. Four young singers from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program played the lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’d keep my eye on soprano Layla Claire and baritone Elliot Madore—these two have definite possibilities.

There’s a special charge hearing a singer at the peak of her career, and that’s where Joyce DiDonato resides these days. As Sycorax, the sorceress mentioned but not seen in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she goes for broke both musically and dramatically in her first arias as she casts her spells. In the second act she turns lyrical in a Ferrandini aria as she consoles her son Caliban, and hearing the DiDonato brand of musicianship in a work like this is a gift. She seemed to be having the time of her life playing ugly at the beginning of the opera, and aside from Beverly Sills, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer convey such enjoyment at what she does for a living. Not so incidentally, she earns that gorgeous costume you see in the production photo above by the end of the opera, and then some.

The production team poked some fun at the Baroque style with its over-the-top design of Neptune’s lair, complete with four floating mermaids and a chorus posed behind cardboard-flat cherubs. I also enjoyed Ariel’s entrance in that scene as she appears in old-fashioned diver’s gear, and the initial depiction of Neptune as a cranky Wizard of Oz. Even when Ariel-as-Tinkerbelle threatens to become too cute for words, you’re still wowed by the stage effects. I only have a couple of minor bones to pick—I wish Jeremy Sams had made the extent of Prospero’s usurpation more explicit at the beginning of the opera, because in the last scene even Joyce DiDonato can’t make Sycorax’s hatred of the man and her refusal of forgiveness logical. And casting a countertenor as Ferdinand almost made his pairing with Miranda incestuous—evidently she wanted a guy just like dear old Dad. However, their duet was terrific (countertenors are like universal donors—they blend like nobody’s business). It’s a shame we didn’t get some fireworks via a duet featuring DiDonato and Daniels, but it’s something to think about when the production is revived, isn’t it?

The encore HD telecast is scheduled for February 8th, and I’m sure this will turn up on PBS in the coming months. Don’t miss it.