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.