Editor's Desk

Elina Garanča's New Music Video

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

Reports of the death of the music video, much like that of print media, are greatly exaggerated. Lady Gaga proved as much earlier this month at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she nabbed eight "moonmen" (MTV’s equivalent to the Oscar statuette) in recognition of her revitalization of the genre.

Classical-music marketers never met a pop trend they didn't like, so Deutsche Grammophon gives us "El Vito," a music video of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča singing Obradors' song in support of her latest album, Habanera.

The video seems singularly designed to convince us that Garanča is a sexy minx in her role as a hard, bewitching, capricious Gypsy — but is that enough of a concept to sustain its three-and-a-half minutes? Music videos were created to visualize pop music, and over the past thirty years, the style of their presentation has evolved in tandem with the style of that particular genre. Does Garanča's video embrace the idea of a cinematography of classical music? No. Could one be created? Maybe. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Rediscoveries

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

When I was little, Renata Tebaldi was "it." In my household, the Verdi recordings on the shelf all featured Tebaldi, my mother's favorite, and it didn't much occur to me that a Verdi soprano could sound any other way. Of course I occasionally heard other divas of the current generation, in passing, when some grownup turned the Saturday Texaco radio broadcasts on, but the essential sound that was stuck in my head was La Tebaldi's, and hers was the image I associated with the great heroines of opera-land. (To my eyes, the Tebaldi Traviata cover and the cover of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights had a similar glamour and sex appeal and were, in fact, not all that easy to tell apart.)

It wasn't until the opera bug bit me as a young teenager that I started branching out and discovering that all those great melodies could be sung in many idiosyncratic ways, and to very different effect. Via television and radio, I became a devotee of "little Renata" (Scotto), a great Met favorite at that time, whose lean, metallic sound struck my ears as particularly youthful and clean. As I began attending live performances more and more regularly, I gradually came to recognize and appreciate the vast variety of timbres, personalities and styles offered by the artists of the day and no longer expected that archetypal Tebaldi sound — a good thing, as no other soprano has ever reproduced it.

The danger of such early familiarity with a great singer is that one often comes to take her charms for granted. Tebaldi always sounded exactly right to me, but because she was the first and, for a time, only example I had of how certain roles should be sung, I did not understand quite what a special thing her artistry was. My loyalty to Tebaldi was such a foregone conclusion that as time went on I did not listen as closely to her as I might to other less familiar artists, because I already knew what I was going to hear.

The beauty of it, of course, is that later in life one has a chance to "discover" a beloved singer all over again in the context of many years of exposure to different interpretations, both live and on recording. The advent of podcasts and YouTube and the release of archival materials on CD and video has brought easy access to historic performances I had not encountered before, and in poring over them, I have relished the chance to listen old favorites with fresh ears. It's nice to know, in retrospect, that it was not ignorance that made Tebaldi seem so perfect: the warm, luminous tone, the unbroken legato, the infallible evenness from top to bottom of the register, the breath control and command of dynamics, and above all else, that rich, creamy, enveloping wave of sound, utterly devoid of shrillness, are sui generis. For vocal beauty and Italianate line, Tebaldi is still "it." spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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Summertime Blues

(Recordings, Observations, Tristan Kraft, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link
Blog Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin 9110  

George and Ira Gershwin's melodies pervade popular culture with the same frequency as Carmen or Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Two weeks ago, Brian Wilson contributed to the fold of Gershwin interpretations, releasing his newest album "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin." The album, issued on Disney Pearl Series, is his second after the release of the much-anticipated "Smile" in 2005.

As you might expect, the former Beach Boy presents these standards, musical theater numbers and arias in cooing, three and four-part harmonies awash in reverb. Wilson plays "'S Wonderful" as a bossa nova, à la João Gilberto; he redefines "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess as a instrumental jig for harmonica; and he adds both string and saxophone accompaniment to "Summertime" , singing with what you might call Southern California sprezzatura.

If it's too weird for you, there are plenty of other renditions to fall back on. Take the following, for instance: Leontyne Price singing "Summertime" for Jimmy Carter in 1978. spacer 

– TRISTAN KRAFT

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E tu, Renée?

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

I feel ever so slightly betrayed by Renée Fleming. After the 2005 release of her jazz CD Haunted Heart, which I liked none too much, she really went out of her way to regain my trust. She turned in one splendid performance after another (from Violetta and Desdemona to Tatiana and Rusalka) and recorded a handful of intriguing CD projects. And then — with a regularity that rivals the phases of the moon — she dropped another crossover album.

That is not to say that Dark Hope, her new indie-rock effort, is nearly so heinous as Haunted Heart, which left me demanding concrete, recorded evidence that Fleming actually spent any of her college days touring as a jazz singer.

At the end of the day, Dark Hope is simply impressive in its genre impersonation (more the music than the video for the first single; see below). You can catch Joanne Sydney Lessner’s delicious yet fair review of the album in the October issue of OPERA NEWS. spacer 

— Oussama Zahr

Crossing Over

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

Why do so many practitioners of "crossover" profess to be so deeply offended by the term? It has no inherently negative connotation as far as I can see: it was coined merely to indicate an artist "crossing over" from one genre into another — generally one for which he/she was not previously known. The word itself certainly implies no harm in that.

Many artists have successfully made forays outside what is considered their home territory. Take Eileen Farrell's recordings of Irving Berlin or Rodgers & Hart: I defy anyone listening blind to identify Farrell as an interloper in the pop world. And Cesare Siepi's "I've Got You Under My Skin" — silly, over-the-top and heavily accented as it is — remains fun, sexy and utterly irresistible. In the opposite direction, Sting has earned kudos for his idiosyncratic but earnest ventures into lute song, and Aretha Franklin's accidental appropriation of "Nessun dorma" was a smash hit.

I can't imagine Farrell would have had much objection to the term "crossover," since she seemed to hold dual citizenship in the pop and classical worlds and could travel back and forth over the border confident of a warm welcome whichever way she went. The trouble seems to arise with artists who want to be taken for natives but come across more as the kind of daytripping tourists whose cameras, Hawaiian shirts and socks-with-sandals are a dead giveaway. One suspects there would be less niggling over terminology if the artists in question were not so worried about tripping over the barbed wire and finding themselves caught in no-man's land, with hostile searchlights trained on them from both sides. spacer 

— Louise T. Guinther 

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   

 

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

 


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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3