Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Just in time for Gay Pride!

If only my parents had had this! If only countless families throughout the country had had enough foresight to protect themselves!

Thanks to Janice Hall for the link!

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Adorable vs. Uproarious

I encountered two amusing things over the past couple days that I simply must share.

Being a great Lotte Lehmann aficionado (as well as a board member of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation... shameless plug for the foundation, I was searching on youtube for an excerpt from her single Hollywood film, Big City for MGM (which I did not find on youtube, but which I actually found on the Lehmann Foundation website (click on this link to view it in QuickTime... and DO watch the clip; her warmth and charm come through like gangbusters).

I also found this clip on youtube of footage from Lehmann's Australian tour in 1937 and it is adorable. Always wondered what a laughing kookaburra really sounded like!

Someone in my building has been discarding boxes of old LPs. I have retained a childhood fascination for the long playing record. There was something so satisfying about going through bins of LPs, a peculiar mystique that CDs cannot match. Anyway, there were some real treasures among those LPs, including a 1959 Maureen O'Hara album on RCA entitled "Love Letters from Maureen O'Hara" and a 1958 Abbe Lane album, also on RCA, entitled "The Lady in Red" with Sid Ramin's orchestra.

My two favorite album covers in the lot, though, were two on the Audio Fidelity label, both with Jo Basile, his Accordion and Orchestra. One is called "Cafe Italiano" and the other is entitled "Accordion de Paris." My scanner won't accommodate the entire album cover, but I was able to capture the essence of each and I hope they will delight you as much as they did me, particularly "Accordion"...

One of the best things is that they clearly used the same table and chairs for each photo (even though the table cloths appear to be different colors and the chairs may have been spray painted between photo shoots)! Just throw some sausages and cheese on the table ed eccoci, siamo in Italia. Merely replace with a bottle of wine and two half-empty glasses, et voilà, nous sommes transportés à Paris!

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Sylvia and Shirley


Well, I haven't really been inundated with guesses on the previous post's Violetta, so let me just do the "reveal": Sylvia Sass. This was the performance that catapulted her onto the world stages. Aix, 1976. Her acting is no great shakes, except for the one moment during Alfredo's serenade, but she looks amazing and proved her acting chops elsewhere (supposedly her death scene was incredible, though there are no clips from it on youtube, not yet, anyway). There are more than a dozen Sass clips on youtube at present, posted mostly by a user named "sylviasasslives."

By the way, I can indeed attest that she lives. I saw her sing a benefit at the Hungarian Embassy in Paris about two and a half years ago. To say that the voice is more or less completely shot is to be kind. She looked amazing, however. She presented this Hungarian would-be stud baritone, his hair slicked back in a pony-tail, as her "protege" (God knows exactly what that meant) who sang a not very good rendition of the Ravel Don Quichotte songs. The only thing he lacked were the pointed incisors!

She sang Liszt and Kodaly songs with very gusty, explosive vocalism that only exposed the sorry condition of her voice. They were performing in a salle in the embassy that was the most amazing room: very narrow, very deep, with the most amazing trimmed gold leaf on every column and molding. There was a platform at the front of the stage from which the singers entered stage right. There were some precarious stairs and La Sass was wearing some pretty spiky stiletto heels, and there was one narrowly averted accident in her traversal of those stairs.
The final number on the program was the Tosca-Scarpia duet from Act One (!?), hardly the most scintillating excerpt from the opera, and yet one was glad that something more ambitious was not attempted. But it gave her a chance to chew the scenery in a most engagingly theatrical way.

They saved the most grotesque number for an encore: a "La ci darem" in which our Sylvia portrayed the most artificially coy, arch Zerlina. It was a performance not to be forgotten. I only wish I had taken more thorough notes at the time. I ended up relaying my impressions by phone at the time, but I am sure I have forgotten any salient details, such as what she was wearing.

For anyone interested, be sure to check out the other Sass clips on youtube.

In closing, I simply MUST post Lady Macbeth's first scene as performed at La Scala in 1975 by the extraordinary Shirley Verrett. I have never heard anything like it, not from her and not from anyone else, either. The clip in the best condition is in two parts, both of which I post here. I believe her performance the role in its entirety is on youtube; I know I have posted the Sleepwalking Scene earlier. This is, if anything, even more amazing.

Okay, since someone has seen fit to remove these clips from youtube, I will just have to post these excerpts from Verrett's Met Tosca. She is at her most gorgeous physically here, and it is fabulous to watch a pro handle a role for which she was perhaps not perfectly intended by nature.

I also found a clip of a concert performance of the first Macbeth aria. It's not nearly as good as the Scala clip, and you miss her full characterization, but it's still damn good and it's still Shirley!

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Friday, June 15, 2007

A Violetta for the ages (singing Tosca... argh!)

I only have a moment this morning, but I had to post something that I found on youtube last night. Someone has been posting a lot of clips from this singer lately, and I have not seen all of them, but this one absolutely blew me away. Certainly the best singing I have ever heard from this artist, and amazingly, one of the best-sung "Sempre liberae" (?) in my experience.

Well, yet another time, youtube has seen fit to remove a video that otherwise will remain unviewed. Or rather, youtube has been forced to withdraw a video.

Which kind of ruins the suspense... okay, it was Sylvia Sass, about whom I will say more later. I have a clip of her singing "Vissi d'arte" from a few years later, but already the voice was going in the scary direction that we all remember (at least those of us who remember Sass at all!)

Anyway, here's the Tosca. It has good moments, but it can't hold a candle to that Violetta. If it ever reappears, I will repost it, I promise.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Montserrat" and "Kiri" - the ULTIMATE Crossover

And one more time on this subject. The last time, perhaps for present. But this is the most hilarious crossover skit ever. I decided to put the whole scene on here, rather than just the number at the end of the scene. Enjoy... and see if you can get the song out of your head anytime soon!!!

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Two current sopranos: "Built" for Strauss/Simpering, whimpering

I found a link today to a sample of Nina Stemme's new recording of the Vier letzte Lieder.

I listened to the "Im Abendrot"; it was okay. I found it interesting that the NPR commentator had to say about her: "Stemme has a voice built for this music — strong, brushed silver tempered with a touch of cream." I'm not sure I would agree that the voice is "built" for Strauss. I find it interesting that they use this particularly turn of phrase in describing her voice. It certainly "built"in that it does not sound terribly natural or free to me. As for the touch of cream, I think you need more than a touch of cream to sing these songs well. She is okay, but not a singer I would turn to again and again for this music. Flagstad sang the premiere of these songs, of course, but very few other hochdramatisch soprani have attempted these. I'm not saying that Stemme is such a singer: to my ear she does not seem to be. I do not know any of her other work and I will reserve judgment until I hear the rest of the cycle and perhaps a bit of the Tristan with Domingo if I can take it.

BTW, Rothenberger recorded it in the seventies with André Previn, I believe it was. I would be interested to hear that performance; also Augér's, two singers I usually like very much. And Elly Ameling (!) sang this at the Concertgebouw at the very end (!) of her career. I don't know how she would have managed to even hit the high B in "Frühling" or float the the high-lying ethereal phrases in "Beim Schlafengehen". Not necessarily well-advised, but I'm sure she did it with supreme taste. And besides, at that point, she could do whatever she wanted. Kind of like Sayao singing Margerita in Mefistofele at the end of her career. As to Stemme and her recording, give me Jurinac, give me della Casa, give me Janowitz, give me Isokoski. BTW, I just found a very interesting link that lists most if not all performances of these songs that are (or were ever) available on recordings.

Also to return briefly to the crossover topic with which I have been concerning myself in my last few entries:

I listened to about two-thirds of You Know Who's Haunted Heart CD on Rhapsody last night. It was like bathing in slightly rancid honey. She certainly has the style down and her voice sounds beautiful as it nearly always does, but she is as overindulgent in this music as she is in anything else. And while her distinctive vocal "style" (i.e. all that "simpering, whimpering" stuff, to quote "Bewitched", which receives a particularly masturbatory performance here) may lend itself more naturally to jazz, the self-indulgence is just as offensive in this music as it is in anything else she sings. At least one cannot say that she has poisoned the ears of an entire generation of jazz lovers as to how that music should be sung. I wish the same could be said of opera lovers.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Three crossover extremes

God, I hope people actually read these! I have so much fun writing them and I'd hate to think I was merely putting them out into a vaccuum.

Anyway, at the end of the last post, I promised to follow-up with my impressions of two different crossover albums from the nineties: Jorma Hynninen and Gérard Lesne. These are two singers that I admire and enjoy very much. I love Hynninen's big, craggy voice that he could also modeulate to the gentlest pianissimo. And I think that Lesne is/was one of the most imaginative and best vocally-equipped of the batch of countertenors that just preceded David Daniels.

I never heard Hynninen sing live, but I heard Lesne do a concert in Paris a number of years ago. I no longer remember the particulars. Maybe it was at the Athénée. It was a concert of arias with Il Seminario Musicale, the instrumental ensemble that he founded and led. They did a lot of recordings for Virgin in the nineties. I don't have all of them, but I remember his recording of Handel's Lucrezia as being particularly intrepid.

And before I get too heavily into this, I must pay tribute to another singer who has managed to produce some of the best crossover recordings ever. I am speaking of Bryn Terfel, whose "Something Wonderful" recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein is supremely beautiful. Of course I detest "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and no one is ever going to make me change my mind. But there are so many delights on that recording. I don't have it in front of me, but I remember particularly his charming "It Might as Well be Spring" from State Farm (doesn't Jeanne Crain sing it in the movie, all girlish and feminine; Terfel's take is just as effervescent but not at all girlish) and the profoundly moving "Come Home" from Allegro.

Okay, back to the matter at hand. First, the material: Hynninen album is entitled "Evergreens," which really doesn't promise much so much as genetic schlock. He sings a bunch of standards, and not all of the Cole Porter variety. He also sings such faves as "Lullaby of Birdland," "Love Me Tender," and "Yesterdays." The disc opens with "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" (bringing back memories of Jennifer Jones' most peculiar performance in the film of the same title) and then several Cole Porter ("So in Love," "True Love," "Night and Day") and moves along the same lines, covering standards over a period of say, thirty years, from "Isn't it Romantic" to "Only You."

On his album "Mad'Lesne" (get it?), Lesne sings all his own material. The French material is cut out of the same cloth as songs from the same period sung by singers such as Liane Foly, Céline Dion (whose French-language albums from the nineties are SO much better than the English-language stuff she was producing at the same time). There are songs with names such as "Étoile," "Vampire," "Blouse," "Jeux d'humains," and "Sauve qui peut," which gives a sense of the power ballad type of music that we are looking at.

I had distinct first impressions of these recordings when I first listened to them about two weeks ago. I thought that Hynninen was bellowing like a stuffed pig and that Lesne was mercurial and kinda fabulous.

However, upon further listening, I've completely revised my opinion. Of course I admire Lesne for completely going out on a limb and presenting a completely different side of his music-making to the public. I have no idea how this recording was received in the French press at the time, but they tend to love this sort of thing. The first song is "Étoile" and I have to say that it is probably the best one on the whole album. He sings it in primarily in his baritone voice, doing some phrases in the sort of falsetto that one hears in any male pop singer. He sounds like a heavy rocker here, he spits out the words with real abandon and attitude. It's actually kinda sexy.

Unfortunately, it's pretty much downhill from there. The second song, "Les Empêcheurs" is completely banal in every way. He is still in his baritone range, but I'm sorry, lyrics like "méfie-toi des empêcheurs" and repeated cries of "menteurs" are not particularly compelling. In the next song, "Maladresse" there is a country-tinged accompaniment and he enters, singing the whole piece in a rather pallid falsetto that just doesn't work for me. And again, the words and melody are completely hackneyed: "Je suis maladroit, j'ai perdu ta mémoire"... oh, please!

"Vamp" really sounds like a Liane Foly number, sorta jazzy, with wailing saxophone and vocal lines, très nineties. I'm telling you, this could be any middle-of-the-road French pop album from those years.

"Jeux d'humains" tries to be a bit more hard-rocking, kind of like the opening track, but it doesn't have the same catchy hook. Then "Blouse" which sounds more like a Céline Dion song, with this puncutating pizzicato strings... I'm sure you can just imagine. And "Alissa" is the understated, heart-broken number. The wailing sax and the falsetto-stylings take center stage. (If I had bought this recording when it first came out, I probably would have listened to it a lot and sung along with songs like this one, like Dion's "Pour que tu m'aimes encore.")

"Les petits hommes" isn't really worthy of comment, and "Souvenirs" is in a simpler style, accompanied primarily by guitar and a violin obbligato. If it were a more memorable song, it'd be pretty.

The final track "Sauve qui peut" begins with an accordion lick followed by the same melody whistled (and not terribly well). It's would-be retro ("Je te hais moi non plus"... hmm, wonder where he got that lyric from). It's an attempt to have fun that doesn't really work. ("Parle-moi d'amour et je sors de ton lit.")

The whole thing sounds awfully dated now, so that the whole thing sounds rather stale. I just wish that Lesne's songwriting chops were stronger. The recording would have been a whole lot entertaining. And now we come to Jorma's faves. First of all, the album is dedicated to his wife, his "girlfriend of 1958." There is a photo of the two of them together out on the water; if it was taken in 1958, he is seventeen years old. Just about the most handsome seventeen-year-old you could ever want to see. I'm certainly glad I didn't know someone like that when I was seventeen years old; I would have made a complete fool of myself. (On the other hand, it might have been just what I needed, but that's another story altogether.

The songs are all piano-accompanied. The pianist/arranger, Heikki Sarmanto is referred to as "one of the most internationally known figures in Finnish jazz." (Yes, it evidently does exist, lol!) The arrangements initially seemed to me quite pallid and uninteresting, but a little tasteful restraint sounds nice after all the guitar-stylings of "Mad'Lesne." Yes, Hynninen does bark a little bit on some of the songs ("Begin the Beguine" being the most egregrious example; in general the Cole Porter numbers are the least successful on the recording.) His English is really quite good (unlike Mattila in her "Wonderful" album, he doesn't sing any of the songs in Finnish translation). There are some peculiarities of course, the most egregious being the "u" vowel which almost always emerges as "ü" and an insistence on singing on an "r" rather than the preceding vowel ("showrrrrrrs"). Other vowels are given strange diphthongs and certain consonants, which merely adds to the overall charm. (A bit like Elly Ameling's slightly-accented English diction... now I could write a volume on those pop albums!)

Anyway, the first few tracks don't bode well for the album, but once he gets past the Rodgers and Hart and Porter and into less "distinguished" songs such as "Serenade in Blue" (Harry Warren and Mack Gordon) or "Love Me or Leave Me" it becomes apparent that he actually has something to say in this songs. And by the time he gets to the songs from the fifties, it all clicks into place. It's moving to think that these are probably songs that were popular when he and his wife were courting. "My Prayer," "Only You," and "Love Me Tender" are, in fact, exquisite. And his singing of "Yesterday" is heartbreaking. In its own way, it is a perfect rendition. I certainly couldn't imagine it sung better or more simply than it is here.

"Yesterday" of course brings to mind Cathy Berberian's "Beatles Arias" album, which is cut out of altogether different cloth. One doesn't know quite what to make of these recordings. The whole thing sounds like a joke, and a good one at that, carried off with her unique aplomb (the arrangement of "Ticket to Ride" is probably the most famous, but "Help" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are also hilarious). Her overly formal (and intentional) English pronunciation adds to the delight. And there are certain songs that come off beautifully, as more than just a gimmick ("Here, There and Everywhere," "Girl"). Her version of "Yesterday" also comes straight from her heart, or at least appears to do so. In fact, in a conversation in French at the end of the CD, she says that originally she chose to do the songs in a baroque style that would appeal to the parents of Beatles fans, but eventually she put them in her programs simply because they were wonderful music. I think it would be safe to call this the most distinctive "most unique" crossover album ever.

BTW, if anyone loves Berberian, you gotta visit her website which is one of the best-designed websites I've ever encountered. There are fantastic photos, a thorough bio, and a playlist of her singing everything from Monteverdi to "Surabaya-Johnny" to her own "Stripsody" (the reference is to comic strips, not to ecdysiasts). And if you weren't a fan before, you will be after you learn more about her. The "Ticket to Ride" on her website is the best-sung one I have ever heard from her.

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Saturday, June 2, 2007

Danger, Will Robinson!

Voulez-vous, baby? (Call 1-800-K-A-R-I-T-A-M)

That last post was extremely self-pitying and self-indulgent but I think I’m going to leave it up there as a reminder to myself and as a warning of sorts. It’s awfully easy to start feeling sorry for one’s self. A slippery slope to tread, that’s for sure.

And speaking of slippery slopes, I am reminded of a more amusing one that’s been on my mind lately: the dangerous territory classical singers tread when they endeavor to do crossover!

And yet I am dipping my own toe in these waters; I have been trying to come up with a viable cabaret act and/or one-man show. I’m still not sure if I want it to be scripted or not. One thing I am sure of is that I do not want it to be strictly autobiographical. Of course one always incorporates elements of one’s own life and experience into one’s work, and I have every intention to do so consciously. I am not the type of person who tries to hide who they are, at least not when I am onstage in front of an audience!

I have been in conversation with a director on the various possibilities open to me, and he has encouraged me to spread my net very wide, to choose music of extreme stylistic variety. My concern, of course, is doing this music justice, and not sounding like a fool, either. On the duet recital that Mark Crayton and I performed this past season, we did three numbers by the Zellnik brothers, who wrote the musical Yank! which I was lucky enough to see at the New York Musicals Festival a year and a half ago. I asked Joe and David to adapt three numbers from their catalog for two countertenors.

Not everybody was thrilled with the result, but some people liked it, and I certainly enjoyed doing the songs, especially because they were so pointedly different from any other repertoire on the program. I’ve posted one of them (called “I’m Not Afraid”) on my website. As Joe remarked after the performance, one of the songs in particular (entitled “Just True”) seemed to bring out a different facet of my voice. And I have toyed around with singing pop stuff just for kicks. I mean, I put “Autumn Leaves” (in the original French) on my demo (and my website) and indeed, preparing that piece led to a huge vocal breakthrough for me. I just do not want to sound like an emasculated crooner or an over-the-hill contralto venturing into repertoire that she should save for those quiet solitary afternoons in her salon.

Listening to Teresa Stratas’ brilliant recording of “The Unknown Kurt Weill” I was reminded of when I sang “Wie lange noch” at a benefit concert for the Champaign-Urbana Gay Men’s Chorus when I was in graduate school. I have always had a thing for that song, so much more than for the French variant, “Je ne t’aime pas,” nice though it is. It was quite well received, in fact, though I never went any further with more public performances.

The divine Nicole Croisille

As a child I was extremely snobbish in my musical tastes, but eventually started listening to more pop music, and over time I developed a few really embarrassing gaffes in my musical taste (some of the less humiliating: Dalida and Nicole Croisille — two quite different French pop princesses (I don’t need to be embarrassed of loving Piaf and Juliette Gréco), ABBA, Trisha Yearwood... Even though I’m not a fan, I have both volumes of Madonna’s Greatest Hits... I think I’d better stop before I completely humiliate myself, and reveal that I have about eight or nine Céline Dion CDs (though I haven’t bought any since that duet with Andrea Bocelli).

Karita Mattila has a very peculiar album from the mid- to late-nineties called “Wonderful” where she does, indeed, sound wonderful, but the arrangements are really wrong-headed and there are a few priceless renditions, including one of “Taas päivä kaunein on” (aka “Someday My Prince Will Come”).

I think my very very favorite crossover album was done in the mid-eighties by the ever-surprising Sylvia Sass [you have to cursor down to see the album cover; the image is write-protected or I'd post it here; and BTW, do NOT miss the fabulous Felicia Weathers record jackets, either!]. In it she sings all your favorites... in Hungarian. I gotta say, her voice sounds really comfortable in this rep; it’s some of the most unforced, relaxed singing I ever heard from her. Though there is a certain party appeal in hearing “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Bridge over Troubled Water” or (most especially) “Flashdance” in Hungarian. At the climactic point in that song, a rhythmic clanking sound rings out in a pseudo-disco rhythm. I used to say it sounded like the janitor who worked in the recording studio banging on a garbage can cover.

And then there is an album by that ubiquitous and overrated soprano that so many people seem to love but who, to my ear, becomes more mannered and masturbatory and self-indulgent every time she opens her mouth. Certainly her pop renditions represent a nadir in this department. On her recent pop album, I was only able to listen to a version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that sounded like some sort of scena di pazzia before I ran screaming out of the room. So there are real dangers in taking this stuff on.

I remember listening to Leontyne’s pop album and liking it, but that was during a period of my development when she could do no wrong. I do think that, were I to hear it now, I wouldn’t beam down such unstinting approval on her rendition of, for instance, “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss aus Liebe eingestellt” (“Falling in Love Again”). But I guarantee that this album is head and shoulders above the horror mentioned above.

Kiri has done a lot of this stuff without humiliating herself, and there’s a really nice Flicka recording of Rodgers and Hart (I haven’t heard her other endeavors). And of course in the Old Days, there was nothing remarkable about singers taking on a more popular repertoire. Of course there was not such a huge disparity in vocal styles then, either. A friend of mine opines that one learns a lot more about these great singers in the recordings of such repertoire, where they are allowed to let their hair down.

The young (and ever-sublime) Eileen Farrell in her element

The real masters of this repertoire were some of those gals from the thirties through the fifties: Grace Moore, Dorothy Kirsten, Helen Traubel, Risë Stevens, and the peerless Eileen Farrell. God her pop stuff, even the very last recordings she made, is breathtaking. Of course at least three of these women (Moore, her protégé Kirsten, and Farrell) started out as radio singers, which meant they cut their eye teeth singing everything and everything. Turning on a dime, as it were.

I have just pulled the Thomas Quasthoff jazz album off of Rhapsody and so far it’s not bad. He of course indulges himself a bit too much in the superior quality and range of his voice (not every song needs to end on Low Q just because he can do it, but he has a great feel for the material. His English is mostly excellent; he sounds kind of like a Dutch person (which reminds me, I haven’t even mentioned Elly’s crossover albums, but that will require a separate posting). I might even buy this one. Of course, I adore him; he can do almost no wrong in my book, just like the nameless soprano referred to above can do almost nothing right. Yes, I am a person of extremes, which is why I need to be proven wrong on occasion (although I am completely correct in these two instances).

Next time I’m going to write about the two crossover albums I got today, which sit on opposite extremes of the continuum: Jorma Hynninen and Gérard Lesne. Stay tuned because it was quite the roller-coaster ride listening to these two!

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