Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Opera

Brain Bits for a Delayed Spring

It’s March 24th and the weatherman is predicting a snow storm starting tomorrow afternoon, just in time for tomorrow evening’s commute. Mother Nature must be fuming.

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Rise StevensI never heard Risë Stevens sing at the Met—her operatic career ended in 1962—but her artistic reputation was the gold standard for American singers for years. She was a cross-over artist decades before the term was coined, what with her many appearances on radio and television, not to mention her film career, which included “Going My Way,” in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald.

Her voice was indeed unique. Although she succeeded as a mezzo-soprano, her contralto beginnings were always evident in that dark, rich sound. Not many singers have the distinction of being the go-to artist for two such wildly divergent roles as the 17 year-old Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” and the ultimate seductress, Carmen, but she was, for two decades.

If you’d like to hear her at her best, I’d recommend the live 1952 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Carmen.” This was the peak of her career, and while she made two studio recordings of the opera, neither match the intensity of the broadcast. Richard Tucker is incredible as Don José, and when he and Ms. Stevens have their final confrontation, your hair stands on end. I just love what she does with the role—she’s as far removed from cliché as you can possibly get. Unlike other Carmens who tend to snarl the line, her “Non, je ne t’aime plus” is delivered in a dismissive monotone. Her indifference fuels José’s rage, which she knowingly triggers in fulfillment of the fate she had learned during the Card Scene. It’s a wonderfully unified portrayal, something that more than a few Carmens of today could learn from.

Many thanks, Risë Stevens. Rest in peace.

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Speaking of live performances, I was recently listening to and bowled over by “Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute”, the first in a much too long line of galas, celebrations and performances dedicated to his work (For the record, I like a number of his shows, but his worshippers are in a league of crazy all their own). The recording marks a 1973 benefit, and the talent could not have been better.

The standouts are all “Follies” alumnae who reprise their songs from that show, but with the knowledge and zest that comes when a performer has lived with a role for a while. Once of the downsides of original Broadway cast albums of that era is that they were usually recorded on the Sunday following the show’s opening. Actors like Alexis Smith, for whom singing was a bit of a stretch, were short-changed by the process—comparing her “Could I Leave You?” on the original cast album with her rendition at the Sondheim tribute two years later is an eye-opener. She had had the benefit of months of performances and she nails the song cold, both musically and dramatically. While you would expect Dorothy Collins, a singer by trade, to perform well on the Sondheim album, she exceeds your highest expectations. Though it sounds like she had a slight cold at the time, she delivers a searing “Losing My Mind” in addition to a delightful “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which opens the gala. The lady certainly knew her stuff.

And then there’s Ethel Shutta, singing “Broadway Baby.” Her presence is a reminder that the distance between “Follies,” perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s best achievement, and its genesis will continue to grow, to the detriment of the work. You see, Ethel Shutta had been featured in the Ziegfeld Follies back in the 20’s, and when she, along with a number of other actors, was cast in Sondheim’s “Follies,” she brought a performing style to the show that was genuine and true to the era. These performers are all gone now, of course, and the best we can hope for whenever the show is revived is an educated imitation. Most likely, though, we’ll end up with some “Glee”-like shtick. Yuck.

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Variety is not only the spice of life, it saves your sanity. New York’s classical station, WQXR, is in the midst of drowning itself in Bach for ten days. I thought their annual “Beethoven Month” in November was enough, but “Bach 360” is camped on my last nerve. One more cantata, one more passion, and I’ll be losing my mind. Not a good idea, folks.

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Posted in Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Gingerbread Month and Other Brain Bits

The holidays are almost over, but for me, the all-time ginger fanatic, my favorite treat is always in season. Ginger snaps are my passion, and for no other reason I love December because that’s the time when Celestial Seasonings trots out a gingerbread herb tea that’s beyond delicious. You don’t need dessert after sipping a cuppa, post-dinner.

Johann Strauss II with a large beard, moustach...
Johann the Younger

I’m spending this afternoon listening to an archival Metropolitan Opera broadcast from 1951–Die Fledermaus in English, featuring Patrice Munsel, Rise Stevens and Richard Tucker as Alfred, among others, with Eugene Ormandy on the podium. The Met usually digs into its historic trove once or twice during a broadcast season, and they make fascinating listening. It’s fun to hear how performance styles have changed over the years, and it’s equally amusing to see how some things are destined to remain the same, such as the presence of over-parted singers, like today’s Rosalinda, Marguerite Piazza. On the other hand, this Fledermaus presents us with a considerable bag of  goodies–Eugene Ormandy keeps the performance wonderfully frothy, Patrice Munsel is a delightful Adele and Richard Tucker, in addition to that golden tenor of his, is incredibly funny. Plus we get to hear “Roses from the South,” my favorite Strauss waltz, during Orlofsky’s party! What a great treat on New Year’s Eve.

Speaking of music and New Year’s Eve, the last couple of days have been a boon for classical music fans. It’s the Annual WQXR Classical Countdown, and while I was disappointed that Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” didn’t make the Top 75, I was delighted to see my ballot box stuffing pay off for Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” which clocked in at No. 20. Although there’s little suspense, what with Beethoven’s 9th, 7th and 5th always among the Top 10 (enough already), it’s still a great way to celebrate year’s end with the best music ever written.

Since December is TV rerun hell, I’ve had a chance to catch up on my DVD viewing. I fell in love with Downton Abbey, and can’t wait for next Sunday when Season 2 begins on PBS.  But the most entertaining show I’ve seen in a long time was the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, Prohibition, which originally aired on PBS. I’ve not always been a Ken Burns fan–I much prefer the work of his brother, Ric, whose darker view makes Coney Island, The Donner Party and especially New York so engrossing. Ken’s films, postThe Civil War, seem to me to be suffering from terminal bloat. Fortunately that’s not the case with Prohibition which in the argot of the times, could best be described as a snappy tale told in snappy style. It’s especially fun to watch side by side with Boardwalk Empire, and to see how well-grounded the HBO series is—yes, George Remus spoke of himself in the third person, Al Capone began his career as Johnny Torrio’s gofer and the Assistant U.S. Attorney played by Julianne Nicholson is obviously based on Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Assistant Attorney General whom President Harding put in charge of enforcing the Volstead Act. Unlike the series Baseball, Prohibition doesn’t get lost in pre-history—we never have the sense of being bogged down in the 19th century, impatiently waiting for the good stuff to begin. Events move swiftly, and based on the press for this series, I suspect the improved storytelling may have been Lynn Novick’s doing. There’s very little that’s clichéd—while we get Al Capone and machine guns, this is more than offset by the droll observations of Lois Long originally published in The New Yorker. And as always in a Burns documentary, whether Ken or Ric, the musical score couldn’t be better,  what with composer David Cieri’s evocative main theme and Wynton Marsalis and the boys tearing up 1920’s jazz. It doesn’t get better than that.