Editor's Desk

Sound Check

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Listening) Permanent link

 

Blogs Verdi Arias CD Cover 62510  

Recorded sound is not necessarily accurate or fair. Like a photograph, it carries the promise of realism, deceiving us into believing that what we're hearing (or seeing) is 100% representational — a duplication of a live experience — when in fact it isn't at all.

Sondra Radvanovsky is an estimable artist, a soprano capable of delivering thundering fortissimos and a keening line in the Verdi repertory. But in my opinion, her latest CD, entitled Verdi Arias and reviewed in our upcoming August issue, shows off the singer's power but not her strengths. Now, Delos is what we might call a boutique record label. But even so, the engineer could have given us something better than a big, fuzzy soprano sound drowning in reverb.

Having seen Radvanovsky live at the Met as Elvira in Ernani and Leonora in Trovatore (selections from both operas appear on the CD, and excerpts can be heard below), I can testify to her distinctive timbre, dynamic range and, above all, tonal clarity — to say nothing of intangibles like her warmth and dramatic alertness.

The disc puts me in mind of Dolora Zajick, a colossus of the dramatic mezzo repertory, who also recorded an album of Verdi arias that seemed to miss the point of her art. Let's hope that Radvanovsky finds a sound engineer as loving and solicitous as the ones Renée Fleming enjoys over at Decca, the kind of collaborator who can lavish attention upon her voice so that we might better enjoy it. spacer 

— Oussama Zahr

"D'amor sull'ali rosee" from Il Trovatore   

"Tutto sprezzo che d'Ernani" from Ernani   

 

Critical Conditions

(Observations, Elizabeth Diggans, Criticism) Permanent link

In the July issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott's column discusses the evaporation of the traditional print movie review. A skirmish between Salon.com contributor Andrew O'Hehir and a growing number of print reviewers who've recently lost their jobs has been waged in the blogosphere. O'Hehir wrote that whining about their plight made the canned critics look like a "bunch of ginormous great babies." Ouch. Apparently, the role of the print movie critic has become, if not quite obsolete, at least inconsequential. After all, deep down, don't we all consider ourselves competent movie critics? We go to the movies we want to see for whatever reason makes sense to us (and sometimes the reason can be pretty ridiculous and possibly embarrassing). Do we go just because a critic tells us we should? Probably not.

So should live-performance criticism suffer the same fate as film criticism appears to face? In a word, no.

A well-written, carefully-considered live-performance review not only tells its reader something about a once-in-a-lifetime experience (that exact performance is never going to happen, even with the same artists at the same theater in the same production, more than once) but ideally offers something more: background information on the piece and possibly its composer or creator, its production history and why the specific performance in question is special (or not).

I like to think I've learned something after reading a review, and I also like to think the reviewer has been to a lot more performances of the work (or at least studied it more closely and knows far more about it) than I. Theatrical experiences should be described, dissected and criticized (or praised) by the best writers we can find. How else will future generations know what they missed when we're no longer around to tell them how much better theater was in our day? Sure, YouTube is a gold mine, but isn't it really best for samba-dancing babies (ginormous or not) and well-informed beauty-pageant contestants educating us about international problems? spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

Hearing Loss

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

The rap against Kathleen Battle used to be that her voice was not big enough to fill the Met. I never had the slightest difficulty making out Battle's pealing, silvery tones in the vast spaces of the house. The roles I saw her in — Susanna, Adina, Pamina, Rosina — were all canny repertory choices for her pristine and youthful sound, with its unmistakable ping, and she seemed always to be paired with conductors who knew how to achieve transparency of orchestral texture and balance with the voices whereby the collective climaxes emerged thrilling and undimmed, with no sense of holding back.

The radio broadcast of Battle's Adina from 1992 features another artist of small but spectacular vocal means: Stanford Olsen, who sang Nemorino, was a light lyric tenor blessed with rare musicality and refinement. Like Battle, he possessed the clarity and brilliance of tone, the incisive articulation and the instinctive feel for the shape of a phrase to project an illusion of vocal power when needed, so that even without a big, beefy sound he could produce a whopping musical effect. When he sang softly, you could probably have heard a pin drop in the hall, except that the audience tended to be so rapt at those moments they would have died rather than drop one. And because he had the courage, the technique and the delicate beauty of sound to offer a true pianissimo — always audible in the prevailing hush it inspired — his fortes, though never loud by Met standards, provided sufficient contrast, build and ring to pack a genuine punch within the context of his nuanced singing.

I've never quite understood why Olsen did not have a bigger career. His Ottavio was suave, manly and heartfelt; his Belmonte made the long, sustained phrases and tricky articulations that can come across as a tenorial obstacle course into the miraculous expressive devices they were meant to be. His Nemorino was poignant, mellifluous, honey-sweet, at once dignified and hilarious. And he had one thing that is in far too short supply — the ability to float an ethereal note or phrase so freely and easily that it seemed to emanate straight from his heart, bypassing the constraints of his throat, and hang effortlessly and magically in the air.

I often wonder whether the current craving for big, blaring voices is a result of generational hearing loss occasioned by too many rock concerts and sessions with the headphones set on high, or is part of a discouraging trend toward passive participation in the arts. Nowadays, we seem to require the singers to come to us with a kind of in-your-face boldness that demands our attention, whether we like it or not, rather than requiring us to prick up our ears and lean forward eagerly to catch every shade of musical meaning.

Do we go to the opera just to hear the music as it goes by, struggling to drown out the din of our own distracting thoughts — or can we muster the extra effort to focus actively on taking in every word and note of something worth really listening to? spacer 

— Louise T. Guinther

No Explanations

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The brilliant pianist and pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne used to tell her students, "Isn't it wonderful that music is not a science?" Well — yes, it is wonderful. But in these days when arts leaders seem more often to speak in terms of quantification than to assess the quality and merit of various projects, I'm all too happy to be reminded that music is not a science.

I confess that I've often been surprised by how difficult it is for many musicians to discuss the nuts and bolts of how they do what they do. When I began writing for OPERA NEWS, back in the late 1980s, it didn't take me long to discover that singers and conductors — singers, particularly — were often at something of a loss to describe the evolution of their performances in anything other than rather vague and general terms. I would nervously traipse off to an interview armed with a list of questions that I hoped would trigger a provocative, detailed conversation — and often I was disappointed in the result. Not always: Dolora Zajick, for example, can hold forth on technical matters in a way that's endlessly fascinating. Too often, though, I came away feeling that I had learned half of what I'd hoped to learn.

It took me a while to understand that many singers — many musicians, period, in fact — are much better at making music than talking about it. In the August issue of OPERA NEWS, Richard Bonynge freely admits this. In fact, in my experience, I have had many more precisely detailed conversations with writers and professors about the structure and demands of various works than I have had with performers themselves. Why? I think it's because those writers and professors tend to approach music as a problem to be solved, and understood; they're always looking to crack the code of some monumental work, as if understanding every facet of how it's all put together will lead them to a more profound appreciation of the piece itself.

There's no guarantee that that will happen, of course. I was thinking of this recently as I was listening, once more, to Eileen Farrell singing Brünnhilde's immolation scene — a live performance from 1951, with Victor de Sabata conducting the New York Philharmonic. The soprano is in astonishing form — although she sang brilliantly for much of her career, she never sounded as ravishing as she did during the 1950s, before gall-bladder surgery cost her some of the refulgent bloom at the top of her voice. Her Brünnhilde is a staggering achievement, sung in firm, taut musical lines, and in sensuous, impassioned, womanly tones. (Although Farrell is one of my favorite sopranos, I have no trouble admitting that she doesn't always inhabit her music as fully as she does here.)

I began thinking of the two years — 1997 to 1999 — when I collaborated with Eileen on her autobiography, which the publisher, Northeastern University Press, stuck with the meaningless title Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. (When the book was published, Deanna Durbin wrote me a letter from France, indicating that the title was more appropriate for her life story than for Eileen's; I didn't argue with her.)

While we worked on the book, I frequently pummeled Eileen with questions about how she did this, how she did that. Usually, what she did in response was bite her lip and frown at me. Once, she made me fall over laughing by saying, "Do you think I give a shit about stuff like this?" She had a great appreciation of the various twists and turns of her own career, a terrific, self-deprecating wit, and she told a story like nobody else. But I soon realized that she wasn't giving me much about how she had mastered various parts of the Ring or Cavalleria Rusticana or Wozzeck … because she didn't quite know herself. She'd been a good student. She'd worked hard. She'd perfected her technique. She could sing a vast and varied amount of repertory incredibly well. She was touched with musical genius, in an unlikely package. But she didn't know exactly how she'd done it all. She'd just done it. Like all great artists, to a certain degree she'd been a creature of instinct, and there was only so much she could tell me. She knew how it felt, and that was enough. Once, while she was teaching at Indiana University in the 1970s, a student bombarded her with a string of technical questions. Eileen put her hand up and said, "Listen, honey — I don't know your soft palate from a hole in the ground."

All of that technical knowledge is nice. Book-learnin' is a wonderful thing. I prize it. But how much does it really enhance our experience of listening to a great performance, which most often skips the brain and goes straight to the heart? Isn't the most important thing to be able to feel that magic, to recognize and respond to it, when it really happens? spacer 

– BRIAN KELLOW

 

 

 

LuAnn Foster Jenkins

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, The Real Housewives of New York City) Permanent link

Florence Foster Jenkins is so infamous nowadays for being spectacularly untalented (and deluded about her untalented-ness) that the mere mention of her name has become shorthand for an inept singer of means and daring who would inflict her peculiar brand of art upon the world.  

Jenkins’s latest heir apparent is Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, from the Bravo TV show The Real Housewives of New York City, who decided one day to record and release a dance-diva, spoken-word track called "Money Can’t Buy You Class." (We can count our lucky stars that Jenkins’s brilliance was untouched by Auto-Tune, which La Contessa uses quite liberally.) 

The comparison begins with their shared trouble in tackling ascending intervals, but really, do we need a point-by-point? Enjoy!

– Oussama Zahr

 

Cremeistersinger

(Performances, Tristan Kraft, Cinema) Permanent link

Last week I took advantage of the rare opportunity to watch the film components of Matthew Barney's entire Cremaster Cycle — the artist's monumental multimedia installation/performance piece consisting of sculpture, photography, installation and film.

The five films, which were being screened at Manhattan's IFC Center, almost defy written description: there are surreal creatures, abstract and remote settings, and a loose, coming-of-age plot to the cycle, something like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Narnia. Music is an integral part of the cycle, and composer Jonathan Bepler has scored nearly every moment of it. In Cremaster 3, the protagonist (played by Barney) rigs an elevator shaft in the Chrysler building as a harp — leaving the other empty shafts as drones — which a Gaelic-singing maître d’ (played by Paul Brady) uses to accompany himself.

I saw the cycles in order by title (Cremasters 1 through 5 were filmed in 1996, 1999, 2002, 1995, 1997, respectively). This is an occupational hazard, admittedly, but as I watched the films, I wondered what it would be like if Barney were to direct an opera. Cremaster 5 offered the answer to that question: Barney set most of the film inside Budapest’s State Opera House, with the Budapest Philharmonic playing in the pit, while a costumed climber (again played by Barney) climbs up, across and down the proscenium, as former Bond-girl Ursula Andress "sings" from the theater’s Royal Box. (Soprano Adrienne Csengery does the actual singing.)

The result, however, is a bit of a letdown. Bepler, who is a talented orchestral composer, fails to create much variation in the vocal parts. Where he is otherwise capable of creating spontaneous rhythmic texture, he provides Csengery with what seems like one endless legato phrase, with a tepid orchestration underneath. She is less than pleasant to listen to: her intonation is spotty and she sings with one of the widest vibratos around. Andress, and her accompanying twin sprites, perform a campy lip-syncing job to go along with it.

With the proliferation of operas in high definition, it’s possible to imagine Barney directing an opera, without omitting any of the media he synthesizes so well. Judging by the ending of Cremaster 5, I’d say the director may be ready to direct Rusalka.

– Tristan Kraft

More information can be found at www.cremaster.net, the IFC Center and the fan-site Cremaster Fanatic, where one can see Barney and family sitting at the MOMA’s Marina Abramović exhibit, or the avant-garde artist modeling for Macy's in the late 1980's.

Barbiere-Shop

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

Time was when no social gathering would have seemed complete without somebody sitting down at the piano for a sing-along. Nowadays, the need to make our own music has long since been obviated by the phonograph and its long line of descendants. We need only pop in a CD or download a tune — or 500 — onto the old iPod to have our fill of Beethoven, Chopin or Lady Gaga, without having to lift a finger to practice a single scale. But there is one form of home-grown musicale that seems to retain widespread popularity — the barbershop quartet. All you need are three buddies with decent intonation (or strangers who will soon become buddies if their intonation is decent enough) and tolerant neighbors who won’t mind a free "concert" now and then.

I recently discovered the pleasures of barbershop singing when a group of friends decided their male quartet needed a female adjunct to provide variety (and perhaps to liven up the inevitable post-rehearsal cocktail hours). Barbershop is toe-tapping fun, and though I confess to liking it best in its original low-voiced form, it’s a great outlet for vocal wannabes like me, who can count and sing pretty much on pitch and even manage a passable "Voi che sapete"in the shower but outside the friendly acoustics of that tiled echo chamber could not produce a lush, opulent tone if our lives depended on it. Those four parts together, even sung in thin, individually unremarkable voices like mine, produce all the rich resonance one could wish for, and it is quite a thrill to be partially responsible for such a sound, even if one can only claim one quarter of the credit.

"So," a friend asked me at one of those cocktail hours, "has there ever been an opera with a barbershop quartet?" He thought he was kidding, but the answer, of course is yes. (Is there anything of musical value or interest that has not made its way into opera at some point in the long history of the lyric art?) There may be a multitude of examples, and I would be delighted to hear about them if anyone out there is familiar with others. The one that came to my mind was "We will rest awhile," from Scott Joplin’s only opera, Treemonisha, a work never produced in its composer’s lifetime, but which has enjoyed sporadic revivals in recent years. I sort of knew it was out there, but it wasn’t until I had tested the quartet waters myself that I grew eager to hear and inwardly digest the operatic form of that time-honored and very American genre.

 YouTube to the rescue. In among a surprising number of dreadful renditions by amateur choral groups (one foolproof way to kill the spirit of barbershop is to perform it with massed choral forces, rather than one voice to a part) I found the following homemade video, taken in a backstage corridor during a performance. It’s not only good barbershop singing: it overflows with the sheer joy of making music and the matchless sense of true bonding one derives from collaborating in a tight ensemble. Watch the guy on the left — that electric smile and the way he locks in the other three with his hands, his eyes and every other expressive means at his disposal. I dare you to listen to it and not be tempted to try it yourself.

– Louise Guinther

New ... Again

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The most thrilling performance in the Met's season came at its very end, and it was a revival at that. I wasn't fortunate enough to catch Teresa Stratas as Alban Berg's Lulu (she sang it at the Met premiere of the complete version of the work in 1980), but I have seen later revivals of the famed John Dexter production, with Catherine Malfitano and Christine Schäfer. Both had their merits, but neither one approached the brilliance of the recent outing, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. I saw it on May 12, and Petersen was a revelation, as completely satisfying as I had found her disappointing in the Met's Hamlet two months earlier. The entire cast, in fact, seemed unusually in sync with each other, as if they all understood the real point of Lulu: that it's an extended sick joke. But most of the credit for the success of the performance belongs to Fabio Luisi, the Met's recently appointed principal guest conductor. This Lulu was a tantalizing promise of what Luisi may bring to his future work with the Met orchestra. I've never heard a live performance of this opera in which the score's bluesy, subversive wit rose to the surface so consistently. And the audience was keen to what Luisi was up to, laughing out loud at several points, and not just at Lulu's magnificently amoral antics onstage — they seemed to be laughing at the effects served up by the orchestra. This hasn't been the case in past performances I've heard conducted by Met music director James Levine. Although Levine always drew beautiful, transparently detailed work from the players, he never quite seemed to be in on the opera's central joke. Masterful as his touch was, it felt that he conducted the work with a straight-faced sobriety, a certain portentousness — as if the entire opera were to be done in the tone of the chilling final scene. Much of what makes that last scene so powerful is that what comes before it doesn't really prepare us for it — we've had the rug ripped out from under us.

In the 1980s, when I worked on the performing arts staff of the 92nd Street Y, the program's director, Omus Hirshbein, worked overtime bringing a wide range of twentieth-century music to the Y's somewhat hidebound audience. I used to answer many of the letters from subscribers who wrote in angrily protesting that they had to sit through works like Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht or Berg's Chamber Concerto, which they usually derisively characterized as "new music." Berg was near completion of Lulu when he died in 1935, but for me, the Met's recent performance carried the wallop of discovery. This time around, it really did seem, in so many ways, like "new music." spacer 

– Brian Kellow


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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2