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.

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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.

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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!

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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.