by BRIAN KELLOW, TRISTAN KRAFT
© United Archives GmbH/Alamy 2012
Essential Non-operatic Porgy and Bess: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's 1958 studio take (available on Polygram/ Universal). No one's in a hurry here, and the album swells with personality and sophistication. Armstrong quietly chuckles once between verses of "Summertime," Fitzgerald turns the throwaway tune "Here come de honey man" into a smoky folk song, and the duet "Bess, you is my woman now" has never sounded so affectionate as it does here. Russell Garcia leads a strangely passionate studio orchestra. For deeper cuts, seek out the spare interpretation by Miles Davis and frequent collaborator Gil Evans, also released in 1958. Foster Hirsch examines the roadblocks of Porgy and Bess, "The Renovation of Catfish Row."
Essential Pasticcio Movie: Herbert Ross's Pennies from Heaven. This movie was one of the biggest — and most undeserved — commercial flops of 1981. Based on a BBC television series, it's the story of a heavy-hearted Midwestern sheet-music salesman (Steve Martin) and the woman he falls for (Bernadette Peters, better cast than at any time in her film career). The movie is constructed like a string of beads, the beads being Depression-era tunes that the characters lip-synch to; instead of coming off as canned and hollow, however, these numbers have an emotional intensity that at times can make your skin crawl. Genius bit: the amazing Christopher Walken, doing a striptease to Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave." HD and broadcast coverage of the Met's new pasticcio, The Enchanted Island, begins on p. 40.
Essential Alice Coote Performance: "Verdi prati," from Stuttgart State Opera's production of Alcina (available from Arthaus Musik). Few mezzos today can match Coote for sophisticated musicianship and depth of feeling. As a Handelian, she possesses a rare kind of gravitas. As this clip demonstrates, there's something quietly mysterious at the center of her singing. You're never quite sure how she gets her effects: she's closer to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson than to Jennifer Larmore. "The sort of singing I want to do, I want to be as honest as possible," she once told OPERA NEWS. This rendition of "Verdi prati" demonstrates that she has met her own challenge brilliantly. See broadcast coverage of Coote in the Met's Hansel and Gretel, p. 34.
Essential Surprise Casting: Kitty Carlisle in the title role of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. How many sopranos had a more eclectic career than Carlisle? From the 1934 cult film Murder at the Vanities to warbling Frank Loesser's "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" in Woody Allen's 1987 comedy Radio Days, Carlisle had a habit of turning up in unexpected places — never more unexpected than the 1948 Broadway production of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. Insecure about her singing voice, Carlisle looked on the opera as a creative stretch, mastering the difficult music while predicting that the show would make it for only three weeks. Brenda Lewis, who was in the cast, recalled, "She worked very hard and did everything that she was told to do. But she was not quite in her element." Carlisle was prescient, however: Lucretia opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 29, 1948, and closed after twenty-three performances. Read David J. Baker's meditation on The Rape of Lucretia, "Chamber Drama."
Essential Eric Owens Recording: His performance as the Storyteller in John Adams's A Flowering Tree. In terms of ideal narrators, we ask for Morgan Freeman for movies, David Attenborough for documentaries and Eric Owens for operas. Owens narrates the story of Kumudha, who transforms herself into a flowering tree, gets deceived and can't transform back — "a story of love, and then pain, and then love again," as we hear from the Storyteller at the outset of the work. The libretto requires the Storyteller to traverse monologue-style prose, and Owens colors each phrase — gently when relaying Kumudha's beauty, vociferously when Kumudha, in tree form, is vandalized — with his lyric, regal and sympathetic bass-baritone. The effect is like having a teacher read you a picture book, only Owens doesn't hold up the images on each page: he just sings them. Eric Owens speaks with Adam Wasserman, "A Lesson in Listening."
BRIAN KELLOW, TRISTAN KRAFT
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