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 Brain Bits, Cats, Observations, Opera

Babbling and Strewing Flowers

Bits and pieces on an April afternoon:

It’s Titanic weekend, yet summer returned again, three weeks after its initial appearance in March. People are shopping in shorts, I’ve got the ceiling fans going, but it’s been weeks since we’ve had a soaking rain. This on top of a snowless winter spells one big rude awakening come June when water restrictions are sure to go into effect. There’s never a free lunch.

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When did drinking beverages in your seat during a theatrical performance become OK? I must have missed that memo, because I was ready to strangle the girl sitting next to me on Friday night at the Signature Theater during Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque.” All during the first act she kept taking a bottle of water out of her voluminous bag and squirting a mouthful into her yap, the plastic audibly snapping back into place as the contents diminished. Now this is a small theater—not even the size of a high school auditorium—and we were sitting Orchestra, Row D, not quite under the actors’ noses, but close enough to enjoy a palpable eye-lock as they delivered the occasional aside. Geez Louise, it’s bad enough the slurping and snapping is disturbing to me, who’s paid good money for a ticket, but it’s beyond rude to the actors who are trying to earn a living up on stage. Fortunately the play, about coping with death, was too much for Miss Hydration, who looked to be all of 22—she left at intermission, and the silence next door for Act Two was truly golden.

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It would be lovely if our pets lived longer lives. I took Roger in when he was all of five weeks old, dumped to fend for himself in Petsmart and discovered hiding under a pallet on the store’s busiest delivery day of the week. He was quite a handful—tough, stubborn and a devil to my other cats. To the day she died, my cat Pepper hissed every time she laid eyes on him; once I even saw her wake up from a nap, screw up her face, growl at him and promptly conk out again, her job done. Jake, another of my cats, who was such a little daddy, actually raised him, though every so often he’d look at me as if to say “I did the best I could, but the raw material wasn’t so hot.”

Roger’s personality started to smooth out by the time he turned five, even more as he ascended the feline pecking order when my older cats departed to the Big Litter Box in the Sky. He’s always been a snuggler, and loves to curl up on the back of the sofa as I watch TV, using my shoulder as a pillow. Now he’ll turn 14 in August, and suddenly he’s become a sage old man. He’s lost some weight, and while he still eats like a little piglet, a trip to the vet is in the offing. Hopefully he’s got a few more years ahead of him, because it’ll be very difficult to say goodbye to this guy.

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Samuel Barber

I’ve been a huge Samuel Barber fan for years, since I was about the age of 10 and heard his “Second Essay for Orchestra” live. Several years later, when I went opera crazy and borrowed scores from my junior high music teacher, I fell in love with “Vanessa” and nearly wore out the studio recording released by RCA Victor shortly after the work premiered at the Met in 1958. However, there’s a far better recording available, from a taped Metropolitan Opera broadcast aired during the work’s first season. It features the same cast as the RCA version—Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda and Giorgio Tozzi—but it’s like viewing a scene in color for the first time after years of being stuck  with black and white. It’s not just the energy generated by the singers performing in front of a live audience: Giorgio Tozzi is exceptionally funny as well as poignant as the Old Doctor, and Eleanor Steber’s portrait of the vain and self-deluding title character just burns in your memory. Perhaps the most astonishing part of her performance is the notoriously difficult “Skating Song” (coloratura-ed to the hilt) which few sopranos attempt when the work is staged. Yet Steber nails every single note. The box set is “Samuel Barber: Historical Recordings 1935-1960” ; the rewards, including Barber’s performance of his own “Dover Beach,” are endless.

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Thank you, Edna St. Vincent Millay, for “Spring” and one of the most vivid poetic images ever conceived (“It is not enough that yearly, down this hill/April/Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”) Ah, the enduring power of High School Accelerated English.