Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tre Gioconde: Compare and contrast

This will be a quickie today. I took a break from work at my best and did a youtube search on Renata Scotto. I am delighted that the Suor Angelica is back up. Also her "Suicidio!" from the (in)famous 1979 San Francisco Gioconda, to which I believe I referred in my Pavarotti tribute.

There may be those who detest this. There will be just as many who find it brilliant. I must confess that I am impartial. I remember watching this on television when I was a wee thing :-) and found it riveting. Sure, she's hammy. That's what Italian opera is all about. Those who downplay that miss the point. I remember my teacher John Wustman saying to me when I was in graduate school that if you were going to perform this music you needed a little "trash in your veins."

Scotto's dramatic performance is dictated by her vocal limitations in this repertoire. She could not give a balls-to-the-wall Zinka-style performance. But oh, what she gives us instead: a contemplative Gioconda, one who is actually weighing the possibility of suicide, dreading death yet longing for it. I find her coups de théâtre stunning: the dropped crucifix on the last syllable of the word "cammin," her well-timed collapses, her winged flight on "volevan l'ore." And does she not look extraordinary: the costume, the hair, the svelte figure? On all counts this is a brilliant performance. I wish it would be reissued on DVD. At least the audio version has been released on Gala.

Without further ado, here it is:

Now, this is probably unfair, but I also came across a performance within the past year at the Liceu featuring Deborah Voigt. Now admittedly, this is clearly not her rep. But she is much too naturalistic in her acting to be a convincing Gioconda. This music demands an over-the-top approach. I don't get any nuance from her performance. The voice is bigger but she has fewer colors at her disposal. Her stab at the high B is, to my ear, less effective than Scotto's, even if our Renatina wobbles a bit here (it is, all things considered, however, a relatively wobble-free performance from her). Well, now that I've clearly stated my opinion on the matter, I present Exhibit B:
When I take a look at Eva Marton's performance (which I will not post but which is linked here for those curious) I would be hard-pressed to say which singer is less effective. Marton handles certain chesty passages a little better than Voigt, but on the whole, she barely registers. At least her performance is a touch more idiomatic, but I never found her voice in any way an ingratiating, engaging instrument.
Finally, a heartbreaking clip of La Divina in London. In the 1973-4 season she undertook an ill-advised (but even more poorly conceived) comeback tour with Giuseppe di Stefano, who was in almost equally bad vocal estate at that time. Much of the repertoire she had never performed onstage before, and they were accompanied at most performances by a pianist whose name I cannot remember (why does Robert Sutherland stick in my mind?) EMI recorded those concerts hoping to do an audio release, but alas, Maria's voice was in such perilous condition that nothing was usable. I have a friend who was in the audience when she performed in Boston, however, and he said that she was mesmerizing. That was a night when di Stefano was indisposed, so Callas sang accompanied by Vasso Devetzi, the perhaps Mephistophelian figure who took over Callas' life and fortunes at the end. As for this London performance, so what if her voice is in tatters? Of course I'd rather that it were as healthy as in her Cetra recording, which is one of her most unfettered performances, at least in the recording studio.

It must be said, however, that she manages the aria pretty damn well here, even if it is transposed down, even if the registers are completely unknit by this point, even if the pianist is of no help to her whatsoever. In the words of the immortal Vera Galupe-Borszkh, she "gave too much," here, there and everywhere. But if she hadn't, and if Scotto hadn't, we would have been so much poorer. You see what we would have had instead as a benchmark [sic].

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Another great one passes

Of course the title of this entry speaks of the most famous singer of all to have died in recent months.

There are very few singers about whom I have as much ambivalence as I do Pavarotti. But that is because I abhor the commercialization of our art. I prefer to live in that rarefied sphere where money and commerce never appear. (That was not intended to be a rhyme!)

And yet Pavarotti turned opera (or "opera", if you will) into a stadium event. His handkerchief and enormous personality invaded more homes than any other singer's in recent memory. Did he turn more people on to opera, or did he simply coarsen and cheapen the taste of the general public so they believed that three tenors screeching "vincerò" in quasi-unison was what Opera all about? Was it his commercialization and commodification of our profession that opened the door for such abominations as Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, Russell Watson and Katherine Jenkins? (And on that subject, I don't care if Gergiev and Abbado conduct recordings by Bocelli, that does not alchemize him into a singer.)

But you see, this is the problem with Pavarotti: that we forget (or perhaps it is only I who forget) that in his early years, he was a truly great singer. He was called the King of the High C's for a reason. Yes, it was pure hype dreamed up by Herbert Breslin or Decca's publicity hounds (or whomever) but neither Domingo or Carreras were ever in any danger of being touted for their exceptional high notes.

No, Pavarotti at his best was a superhumanly gifted singer. He was also a showman who knew how to kowtow to an audience and to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But just for once, especially on the occasion of his demise, can I not simply look the other way, or turn my ear the other way and just exult in the sheer brilliance of his singing.

He was an astute technician. One had only to watch him sing to realize the profound concentration at work whenever he opened his mouth (to sing, at least, if not always to talk).
He did not have the most beautiful tenor voice per se. To my ear the basic sound was rather resiny and the legato became gummier the heavier the repertoire he assumed. (Otello, Ernani? PLEASE!) But when he was singing the repertoire he was intended by nature to sing (Rodolfo, Tonio, Edgardo, the Duke, Riccardo, Nemorino [though here his 'ingratiating' personality really grated on me]) he was matchless. Certainly among singers in his generation he was possessed of a unique technical aplomb, acuity and self-awareness. Even when he moved beyond the completely healthy spectrum of roles and began singing Cavaradossi and Calaf, he managed by virtue of his technical grounding to convey a reasonable facsimile of those roles.

I have two reminiscences of Pavarotti. The first was the single time I heard him sing live. Ballo in Chicago. It was Scotto I went to hear; it was mere chance that he was singing Riccardo. These were the last performances that Scotto and Pavarotti were to give together. Earlier that season, in Gioconda in San Francisco, each singer was assuming their part for the first time ever. I don't remember the particulars, but somehow Pavarotti upstaged Scotto in the final curtain call or some such, and she was captured on camera having a hissy diva fit to end all hissy diva fits. She swore that, after the already-scheduled Ballo in Chicago, that their paths would never cross again. (You know, those Italians and Greeks [you know who you are]: they're so hot-blooded and grudge-holding. You cross them once and you cease to exist.) So in the second act love duet, their supposed ardor looked much more like repugnance. I will never forget the way that Scotto, singing the words, "Ebben, sì, t'amo" [All right, I confess it: I love you] looked away from him as from a particularly unsavory odor.

Another time, numerous years later, by a chance set of happy accidents, I was in Busseto, Italy, my first time abroad, playing for Carlo Bergonzi's master class at the so-called Bel Canto Institute. Some day I will have more to say about that experience. For the time being, it was, in a word, extraordinary.) One day at lunch (this event took place in Bergonzi's hotel I due Foscari, where three times a day we were fed the most magnificent food), there were excited whispers that Pavarotti was going to be stopping by that afternoon. Sure enough, shortly before the obligatory afternoon siesta, the great man showed up, his current squeeze (Madelyn Renée: anybody remember her?) in tow. He did not stay long, merely looked genial, paid his respects to Bergonzi and Maestro Mantovani, an elderly master teacher who had worked at La Scala and with Pavarotti, and who was working with students, said a few encouraging words to the students and left. Even in those few moments, even to someone who was not at all kindly disposed toward him (how could he have treated poor Renatina so badly?), the sheer charismatic force of his personality swept all before it. It was not so much that he was large of figure (though of course he was), but that he exuded a magnetism that beguiled as it blinded.

I do have a number of Pavarotti recordings, though again, his presence on them is mostly coincidental (I have pirates of the Scala Kleiber-led Bohème with Cotrubaş, the Met Bohème with Scotto that was the first Live from the Met telecast, the infamous San Francisco Gioconda with Scotto, as well as their valedictory joint appearance in the Chicago Ballo, in addition to some of his choicest studio recordings).

I have had much occasion these past few months to memorialize those supreme artists who have gone on to their greater reward. In many cases, I found myself with new-found (or newly-rediscovered) appreciation for what made them special.

The same is true here. Please listen to this live recording of O soave fanciulla featuring the young Mirella Freni to hear what I mean. Apart from the nearly flawless technique, there is a clearly-perceivable interplay between him and the gorgeous Mirella.

This is how he should be remembered, and how I want to remember him. Let us send him out in style. And with a huge debt of thanks for having at times transcended his own commercialism to give us what we really needed. And what he really needed: the adulation of his public.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Abissi di luce

My last few entries have been very autobiographical, not necessarily my original vision for this blog. Maybe I should just let it evolve as it wants to. Upon closer reflection, there are a couple reasons for the nature of the past few entries. First of all, the restructuring of my website has caused me to think back to some of the formative experiences of my career and life. I am also thinking along these terms because I am planning a one-man show whose form and content are still vague, but which may prove to be autobiographical. So putting all this stuff down is also helping me in that regard.

Before I return to the enumeration of my favorite singers, I want to write a bit about the first three sopranos on my previous list. I may very well not choose another ten favorite sopranos because I would have to eliminate far too many. I may decide to do a singer of the day type of thing as this blog unfolds. But in the meantime, I have scribbled a few lines about the three top singers on my list.

Claudia Muzio

The first time I heard Muzio’s voice I was a freshman at St. Olaf College – the single year that I spent at that institution. The bookstore was having a sale on discontinued recordings. I bought two: a compilation of Ernestine Schumann-Heink and a selection of the best of the Muzio Edison diamond discs. Schumann-Heink I liked well enough, but I didn’t fully appreciate her until much later. The voice of Muzio, on the other hand, reached out from the crackling grooves and grabbed me by the throat. Lauri-Volpi called it a voice “made of tears and sighs and restrained interior fire.” Yup. In those earlyish recordings the color of the voice is beautiful in and of itself (see Bachelet’s “Chère Nuit”) but it is the way that she exposes the palpitating heart inside the music that reveals her true greatness. The aria that broke my heart was from Leoncavallo’s Zazà: “Dir che ci sono al mondo.” This remains in my opinion one of the greatest recordings ever made.

In fact, Muzio made several such discs that I’d put on my desert island list: The thrilling abandon of her “Dove son” from Catalani’s Loreley, the plangency and depth of her “Spiagge amate” from Gluck’s Paride ed Elena, the soaring climaxes of her “Sorgi o padre” from Bellini’s early Bianca e Fernando, all Edisons. Years later, I discovered her late recordings, which reveal a voice more or less intact but weakened by her own failing physical condition. Certain of her high notes go flat, the breath is often (but not always) short. There is, however, no trace of a wobble ever, and her artistry is transcendent. I have said many times to students, colleagues, friends, anyone who will listen, that one can give the illusion of spinning out an endless line no matter how many times one takes a breath. And I cite as an example these late Muzio recordings, in particular the two Otello duets with Francesco Merli, where she breathes practically every two bars and yet gives the illusion of one unending line.

From this flawed treasure trove emerge several nearly faultless discs: In Donaudy’s “O del mio amato ben” she conveys a lifetime of heartbreak in just four minutes. I cannot listen to this recording without tears and having heard her rendition of this song, I simply cannot bear to hear anyone else attempt it. Even more poignant is her recording of the song “Ombra di nube” by Licinio Refice, a passionate plea for the dark clouds obscuring the sun to disperse. In her performance, heartbreak and hope meet in a way no other singer has ever surpassed, and few have equalled.

Two other iconic Muzio recordings are also of music by Refice, from his curious sacra rappresentazione, Cecilia, a liturgical opera written expressly for Muzio, and the last new role she took on. In and of itself, it’s pure trash. Without the contribution of a great artist like Muzio (or Scotto, who revived it in concert in the 70's) it is an embarrassment. Certainly no singer today would have the nerve, the fervor, or the fearlessness to attempt it.

Yet Muzio’s records of two excerpts, an introductory “annunzio” of the birth of Cecilia, and the final tableau depicting Cecilia’s death, are without equal, perhaps the greatest recorded examples of her artistry. When her voice bursts forth after the long, rather turgid orchestral introduction to the annunzio it is the voice of an empathic angel that is nevertheless pure flesh and blood. She shapes and colors the words and the vocal line so lovingly, with such aching urgency that one has no choice but to be carried away. In the dramatic scene of Cecilia’s death, Muzio really does seem to be in a trance (the likes of which I have only experienced once in live opera, when I saw Stratas sing the second of her Suor Angelicas at the Met, not coincidentally another bit of Italian religio-trash, and one of my favorite operas). At Cecilia’s death Muzio ecstatically intones the words “giardini di luce, abissi di luce, fontane di luce” (gardens of light, abysses of light, fountains of light) and one is swept away in that same vision. In fact, I can think of no better description of her shatteringly beautiful voice than just that.

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Why I Love Opera

I hardly think any comment is necessary here; these excerpts speak for themselves. Shirley Verrett in the Sleepwalking Scene is superb beyond my powers of description and Scotto, though her vocal powers are already on the wane, breaks my heart with her Suor Angelica.

Thanks, youtube fuckers for taking off these great videos. I've put in Verrett doing the Judgment Scene from Aida instead; but, great though it is, it's no match for that Sleepwalking Scene. If we can't have it on youtube, someone better be putting it out on DVD. Sheesh!

And instead of Scotto's sublime Angelica, I post instead her La Wally from a late concert in Canada. Though it's late Scotto, her voice sounds remarkably fresh; maybe it's because she hadn't been singing as much at that time. Anyway, it's beautiful.

Stratas' Nedda still appears to be on youtube, but one doesn't know how long it will remain, so enjoy it now!


Speaking of Angelica, I was present at the Met for two of the three complete Trittico performances that Teresa Stratas sang and I only wish that the first one I saw (the second of the three that she sang) had been recorded for posterity. Never have I actually been frightened for a performer's sanity: she was possessed by something completely outside of herself. Oh, what the hell, here's an excerpt from a 1978 Met telecast of her Nedda in Pagliacci. Some of that abandon that I thrilled to in her Suor Angelica is here; she's almost Canio's match here. Which reminds me, there's some tenor up there, too; can't remember his name. Actually, while I'm no Domingo fan, he is a little less generalized and a little freer on top than was normally the case. But for great operatic acting, it's Stratas you should watch.

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