Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Start of Summer

June 23rd. Two days after the equinox. Not only did the Big Moon show up, the Mets (!?!) are now playing decent baseball. Matt Harvey’s superior success, the arrival of Eric Young, Jr., Omar Quintanilla, and Juan Lagares, the special guest appearances of Zack Wheeler are all adding up to a team that not only I’m no longer embarrassed to watch—they’re great to see even when they lose. Yet another miracle of summer, the best part of the year.


I’m a Metropolitan Opera subscriber, yet I have to say that the most intense operatic performance I heard this season was not at that house but across the plaza at Avery Fisher Hall. Conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic presented a concert version of Luigi Dallapicolla’s “Il Prigioniero” earlier this month, and I don’t think I breathed during the 50-minute duration of the work. Gerald Finley as the prisoner, Patricia Racette as his mother and Peter Hoare as the jailer were nothing short of superb, as were Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic. Bravissimi!

Gerald Finley and Alan Gilbert:
Gerald Finley and the New York Philharmonic: “Il Prigioniero”

Speaking of opera, it’s always an interesting proposition to consider how a particular production either honors a composer’s intentions or scrapes across the grain. A few weeks ago I experienced Willy Decker’s famous “red dress” version of “La Traviata” at the Met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I enjoyed how he pared the opera down to its essence, yet I really questioned some of his choices. Dressing the chorus and supporting characters in black suits and ties? (Flora, Gastone, et al, sorry we somehow lost you in the crowd). Ditto taking the sole intermission after the first act (While “La Traviata” is among my top ten favorite operas, sitting through the rest of the work without a break made for an unnecessarily long evening). And having Violetta dying in a bleacher seat was ridiculous—the least Decker could have done was given that poor girl a divan.

Nevertheless, there were some arresting moments, especially the beginning of the final act when Violetta sees her fickle friends create another Girl of the Moment by clothing her in that red dress. Diana Damrau was quite good in the role, delivering perhaps the most eerie “È strano” imaginable at the conclusion of the opera. Placido Domingo continues his vanity tour as a baritone, and I wish to God he’d quit and leave these roles to singers who can really do them justice.


Many months ago I made sure to get a ticket to the Met’s revival of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” since only three performances were scheduled. What a marvel John Dexter’s production is—how spare, yet how it complements both the story as well as the music. This is one production both critics and audiences agree should not be replaced.


James GandolfiniThere’s a particular type of sadness most of us feel when a talented actor dies, especially at a young age. No matter how accomplished he or she may be, or how honored in terms of Oscars or Golden Globes bestowed, there’s that sense of deprivation, of missing out on what might have been. This was especially true with the passing of Natasha Richardson several years ago. But with the untimely death of James Gandolfini, there’s more—we mourn not only what might have been, but what iconically was.

As the inimitable Tony Soprano, he had us from the get-go. Is there anyone who wasn’t charmed in the pilot of the show when Tony, noticing his shrink’s Italian surname on her diploma, smiled: “Melfi. What part of the boot you from, hon?” It was Gandolfini’s skill at his craft and his range as an actor that ultimately realized a character and a television show that clearly delineated the “before” and “after” in terms of adult drama. While he made Tony charming, he also with equal skill made him petty, ruthless, murderous, compassionate and confused—sometimes simultaneously.

Since Gandolfini’s death many lists of “Tony Soprano’s Best Moments” have appeared, but I couldn’t come up with a run-down like that no matter how I tried. Where do you start? Even more difficult, where do you end? His amusement at Silvio’s continual state of melt-down during the Big Game with Frank Sinatra, Jr.? His hammer and tongs confrontation with Carmela that ended in their separation (an advanced seminar in acting expertly taught by Gandolfini and Edie Falco and perhaps the most uncomfortable hour of drama ever televised)? His epic battles with Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto, not to mention the way things ended with the latter (Pie-Oh-My indeed)? The horrific moment when he murdered Christopher? When “The Sopranos” aired, every episode was a showcase for both actor and character, to our delight and astonishment.

Gandolfini was set to star in a new HBO mini-series, “Criminal Justice,” in which he would have played a somewhat down-at-the-heels defense attorney. It would have been a good role for him and most likely would have demonstrated once and for all that he had more than Tony Soprano in his repertoire. But sadly, we’re left again with “might have been.”

Thank you, Mr. Gandolfini, and rest in peace.

Posted in Music, Opera

A Detour or Two

divaOnDetour310x310I love Patricia Racette. She’s one of the best singing actors I’ve ever seen on an opera stage. Her Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” was incredible, and I’m looking forward to hearing her again in this work at the Met in May, this time as Madame Lidoine. Both her voice and her presence are warm and engaging—she’s superb at drawing the audience in, whether as a Puccini heroine, Verdi’s Leonora or Britten’s Ellen Orford, and she was especially touching in Tobias Picker’s underrated “An American Tragedy” several seasons ago.

I always felt she should have had the type of career Renée Fleming has enjoyed (including the ad for Rolex). Certainly Racette would have been a far better choice for Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” and I would love to see her do more at the Met—Marguerite and Desdemona are at the top of my list of roles I’d like to see her perform.

Her new project is an ambitious cabaret show called “Diva on Detour,” the recording of which was recently released. I’m a huge fan of cabaret, but I’m well aware that when opera singers take on this repertory, it’s really hit or miss (Eileen Farrell is of course the gold standard, though Dawn Upshaw and lately Stephanie Blythe are doing quite well with the American Songbook). Since Racette’s first career ambition was to sing jazz, I was curious as to how she’d sound in this type of music. The answer? At this point I’d give her a “B”—good but needs some improvement.

Here are the pluses: Patricia Racette’s cabaret voice is uncommonly rich, but without resorting to a stereotypical opera soprano sound. She does a great job with the Edith Piaf numbers, especially “Milord” and “Mon Dieu,” but her stylistic choice and/or key of “La Vie en Rose” is too heavy for the song. Perhaps not surprisingly she’s at her best when there’s a story to be told, as in “Guess Who I Saw Today?” featured in her “sad song” medley, and her marvelously bluesy “The Man That Got Away.” The minuses: I’m not crazy about some of the tempos (“So in Love” is far too driven), and I think her accompanist is a stiff.

Also, I would have liked the patter to be more informal and less instructive. I’ve heard Racette as a guest on the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, and she’s quick on her feet—funny and wonderfully opinionated. But we don’t get enough of this in “Diva on Detour,” except when she imitates her mother’s broad New Hampshire accent: “Patty! Why ahrn’t ya goin’ on ‘Stah Search’?” And after referring to “my man” several times in “I Got Rhythm,” there’s a sly and perfectly timed switch that rightly makes the audience crack up (Racette came out in an “Opera News” cover story ten years ago at a time when few opera singers, let alone sopranos singing romantic leads, did).

The bottom line? Nancy LaMott or Diana Krall she’s not, but Patricia Racette is interesting, no matter what she sings. With her intelligence and musicianship, the end result is always worth hearing.


Speaking of divas with a pop streak, I enjoyed Marilyn Horne’s interview of Susan Graham on WQXR’s “Operavore” a few Saturdays ago. The mezzo-to-mezzo chat got really interesting when Horne asked Graham whether she had ever wanted to sing the soprano lead in music. I grinned when Graham replied that she had always preferred harmony—her teen-age career goal was to join the Manhattan Transfer. Susan Graham rocks.


I want to thank my fellow blogger, The (notso) Secret Life of PhD Student , for nominating me for the Sunshine Award, which is:

… [A]n award given by bloggers to other bloggers. The recipients of the Sunshine Award are: “Bloggers who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogsphere”. The way the award works is this: Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them. Answer questions about yourself. Select 10 of your favourite bloggers, link their blogs to your post and let them know they have been awarded the Sunshine Award!

So here we go!

What inspired you to start blogging?

This was something I had wanted to do for quite a while, but only started when I was going through a really stressful time a couple of years ago. In my book blogging beats therapy—and it’s cheaper, too!

How did you come up with the name to your blog?

It just popped into my head. For the record, I usually name my pets this way and it works!

What is your favorite blog you like to read?

Anything about classical music and opera, especially those on the WQXR website.

Tell about your dream job.

Chief music critic of the New York Times.

Is your glass half empty or half full?

At the risk of putting the evil eye on it, these days it’s half full.

If you could go anywhere for a week’s vacation, where would you go?

I’d split it between two cities I’ve never been to, except to change planes—Chicago and San Francisco.

What food can you absolutely not eat?

Calves’ liver (though I adore chicken livers—go figure).

Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?

Age brings with it a total love affair with dark chocolate. Can’t get enough of the stuff.

How much time do you spend blogging?

Not as much as I’d like. My present job makes it tough for me to post more than once a week, and I’m hopelessly behind in thanking bloggers who’ve posted comments and liked my stuff, let alone keeping up with blogs I follow.

Do you watch TV, and if so, what are some of your favorite shows?

Can’t live without the tube, and my current favorites in no particular order are Homeland, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Southland, Nurse Jackie, Boardwalk Empire and Law and Order: SVU. I’m still a fan of The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under (for my money, the best show ever), The Twilight Zone, Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Once again, mille grazie, PhD Student!

Posted in Opera

Tosca, Sei Tu!

Tosca reappeared at the Met last night, only to prove that terrific voices and a soprano with savvy still can’t overcome Luc Bondy’s production, not to mention a debuting conductor with some strange ideas about tempos.

A Bad Day at Castel Sant’Angelo

Patricia Racette, one of my favorite singers, was the reason I went back to see this production, which garnered a ton of brickbats when it premiered. At the outset let me say that I love singers with brains. Not just musical brains–dramatically wired brains. What I want to see is the result of what baseball players frequently yell at each other from the dugout: “Have an idea out there!” I’ve never found Ms. Racette to be without one, though even she couldn’t make me like Tosca all that much in the first act. After Cavaradossi establishes a rapport with the audience in the melting “Recondita armonia”, Tosca’s jealous fit is a bit much. But Racette reeled us in when she met Scarpia and he played on that jealousy, literally bringing her to her knees. As for Act II, Pat really did it up royally. She was marvelous when she arrived at Scarpia’s apartment and it became clear she was under suspicion as to the whereabouts of the fugitive Angelotti. There was fear, but more than that, the look on her face was pure Tosca-as-diva: “How do I play this?” For some reason I immediately thought of Casablanca’s Major Strasser and his interrogees–maybe it’s the similarity between the letters of transit and the safe conduct Tosca demands. The most controversial portion of this production comes after Tosca stabs Scarpia–the iconic candelabra and crucifix are nowhere to be found. This is the third time I’ve seen it, but not until last night did the stage action following the murder become worth watching. Patricia Racette wasn’t just acting “Oh my God, what have I done?”–she showed us Tosca’s subsequent self-loathing, her fleeting thoughts of suicide and her shocked recognition of the murderer she’s become. For once Tosca’s sinking onto the sofa and fanning herself at the end of the act was logical and real–Racette wonderfully conveyed “I’m in a nightmare, but I’ll be OK once I catch my breath.” Oh, and by the way? She sang the hell out of the part.

Roberto Alagna was Cavaradossi, but more than that, he was a tenor on a mission. On Monday night he had sung Faust,  subbing for an ailing Joseph Calleja, so on Tuesday night he was obviously hell-bent to prove he had the goods to sing a second leading role in 24 hours. He does and he sounded marvelous, but forget about dramatic values. I like Alagna, but I’ve found him to be two entirely different singers. As a French tenor he’s terrific–I saw him do an excellent Werther several seasons ago, and his performance as Don Jose is alone worth the price of sitting through Carmen yet one more time. But Italian opera brings out his hambone tendencies, and his “E lucevan le stelle” while superb vocalism, didn’t hold a candle to the version I heard Marcelo Alvarez deliver last season. At that performance it wasn’t just an aria, it was a palpable remembrance of Cavaradossi’s sensual night with Tosca, and sung with a dramatic awareness that few singers, let alone tenors, possess. The crowd loved Alagna, though, and cheered like mad.

George Gagnidze was the Scarpia, and while he was good, I like some suavity to go along with the sadism. At least he didn’t engage in the manhandling I saw Falk Struckmann resort to with Sondra Radvanovsky last season, which turned the opera into a WWF match. A note to Mikko Franck, who made his Met conducting debut last night: if your singers are turning blue in the face, it’s not a fashion statement–your tempos are too slow.

It was kind of an “awwww no” moment to see a note in the Playbill that Paul Plishka, last night’s Sacristan, is retiring at the end of this run after 45 years at the Met. The memories are plentiful–he was one of the best Falstaffs I’ve ever seen, not to mention a tremendous Boris Godunov, just two of the 83 roles he’s sung. What a career!