OPERA NEWS - Summer Reading List
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Summer Reading List

It's summertime. Pour yourself a glass of pinot grigio, find yourself a quiet corner, and start boning up for next season. WILLIAM R. BRAUN offers some savvy suggestions of books and videos that will help you make the most of what opera companies have on tap.

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Photo by Gregory Downer
© Gregory Downer 2014
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The Lady Arrives: Anna Netrebko
© Dario Acosta 2014
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We all know who we are. A hot July day, a stack of subscription brochures for the coming opera season, and a few minutes to sit down. The next year lies ahead, as yet unbroken, unmarred by last-minute cancellations of singers and conductors, offering new stage directors, many of whom have not yet revealed themselves to be pursuing the wrong career. And our thoughts turn to ways in which a little preparation can help us make the most of the musical riches ahead.

There's a piece of unusual casting at the very start of the season, one startling in prospect but actually quite astute, when Anna Netrebko appears as Verdi's Lady Macbeth at the Met (opening Sept. 24). Bad tradition, a misreading of a Verdi letter and remarks such as Zinka Milanov's "My voice was too beautiful for Lady Macbeth" have led us to expect the wrong sort of voice in the role. Now that turntables are trendy again, the best way to prepare for Netrebko's quite appropriate assumption of the part is to listen to side six of Riccardo Muti's LP recording of Macbeth, in which Fiorenza Cossotto has a go at Verdi's original Act II aria for the leading lady, "Trionfai!" (Space did not allow the inclusion of this material on the CD release.) This dazzling bel canto piece, cousin to Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio," shows us the voice Verdi had in mind, and Netrebko has it. The chapter on Macbeth the play and Macbeth the opera is the highlight of the Garry Wills book Verdi's Shakespeare (now in paperback), in which there is interesting material about the use of boys in Shakespeare's leading female roles. It hardly needs restating that Julian Budden's Operas of Verdi clears the field.

The second John Adams–Peter Sellars collaboration, The Death of Klinghoffer, finally arrives at the Met on October 20, twenty-three years after its premiere. Perhaps this will be the occasion when people start talking about the music; so far, most discussion has been the equivalent of saying that Verdi supported the tossing of babies into bonfires because one of his characters does that. The music, which tells us other things, can be enjoyed under the composer's baton in Penny Woolcock's 2003 film, which considerably shortens the opera but is a stunner in visual terms. (The singers performed live, to a recorded orchestra, on a real ship.) The original reception of the opera was such a dividing line in Adams's career that it receives special treatment in The John Adams Reader (a clutch of extra articles near the end) and in Adams's amiable autobiography Hallelujah Junction (now in paperback). But the most concise and pointed recollections by Adams, Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, who underwent a religious conversion at the time of this collaboration, are at the end of Tony Palmer's biographical film on Adams, Hail Bop!, available on DVD.

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Sellars and conductor Simon Rattle have produced a staging of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, which comes to Manhattan's Park Avenue Armory on October 7 and 8. The best preparation is a tremendous recording of the oratorio's little brother, the St. John, by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort (from 2012, on the Linn label). The piece is performed in its full liturgical context, including organ preludes, hymns and, for those who want to go the full hair-shirt, an appropriate sermon. Readers are no doubt already familiar with Colm Tóibín's 2012 novella The Testament of Mary. Tóibín's singular achievement, a poetic masterwork, creates for us a rocky path, one on which no one can skim ahead, with a rich impasto of language. This is seconded by the new Adams–Sellars collaboration, The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Deutsche Gramophon CD). Bach, Tóibín, Sellars and Adams make us realize that, whether or not you believe in the divinity of anyone or anything, you cannot help believing in the humanity of the people in this story.

Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow returns to the Met in a new production on New Year's Eve. Richard Traubner's Operetta: A Theatrical History is the best guide in English. But the most provocative story to read about The Merry Widow is in the first volume of Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat. It turns out that Ingmar Bergman was determined to make a film of the operetta, and that he was determined to have Sondheim write the English lyrics. (Sondheim's waltz-centered musical, A Little Night Music, of course, is based on Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night.) What did Bergman's shooting script contain? What would Sondheim's lyrics have been like? These questions get us closer to the heart of The Merry Widow.

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Soprano Nadja Michael
© G. Geller 2014

Bluebeard's Castle, Bartók's stark one-act masterpiece, comes to Los Angeles Opera and the Met this season. Its previous Met pairings, with Gianni Schicchi and with Erwartung, did not prove illuminating. But illuminating indeed is composer Ned Rorem's article on the work, "Cries in the Dark." For those engaged in the newly-hip hobby of hoarding, the article can be found in the January 21, 1989 issue of OPERA NEWS. (Others can get it at operanews.com.) It also appears in the 1996 Rorem anthology Other Entertainment. Max Frisch's novella-in-cross-examination Bluebeard is an enjoyable version of the story. The work of Mariusz Trelinski, who directs the Bartók at the Met, can be sampled on a DVD of Eugene Onegin from Valencia. (The intimate scenes are glorious; the two big public scenes are bizarre.) Nadja Michael will be Judith at the Met; her company debut in Macbeth divided opinion, but I was swept away by the total conviction of her performance. She appears as Eboli in a Vienna State Opera DVD of Don Carlos, in which Peter Konwitschny's production would justify renaming the opera Eboli. Something has to be the Single Greatest Opera DVD Ever Released, and this may be it.

Tannhäuser, coming to Lyric Opera of Chicago on February 9, has never been a favorite of stage directors. (They prefer endlessly rehashing the tormented father–daughter dynamic of Der Fliegende Holländer.) But the tide is turning. Two recent productions on DVD, from Kasper Holten in Copenhagen and from Robert Carsen in Barcelona, have found persuasive modern resonances for the time-bound historical parameters of the original. Holten remakes the minstrel as a writer; Carsen portrays him as a wild, shaggy-haired painter. Both directors have reconceived the Act I ballet as the sudden white heat of artistic inspiration, rather than a desultory orgy. Holten's staging of Tannhäuser's outburst in Act II, here in the severely beautiful drawing room of a severely beautiful mansion, goes a long way toward helping a modern audience understand the shocking social transgression. A CD recording from Marek Janowski (PentaTone) is the most successful rendering of Wagner's conception of Wolfram on recordings. (Master lieder-singer Christian Gerhaher takes the role.) Barry Millington's book The Sorcerer of Bayreuth is that rarity, a scholarly volume with surprises for the specialist that can still be enjoyed by the lay reader.

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Rossini's Donna del Lago comes to the Met on February 16, but there's no need for us all to go crazy trying to read Walter Scott. (Let's maybe go a little crazy with Stendhal's Life of Rossini.) The most interesting context for the opera is a bit of comparison listening. Listen to Marilyn Horne's early recordings of "Mura felici" and "Tanti affetti," which led the way in this repertoire. Then move on to the underappreciated June Anderson from 1992, for lessons that have been eagerly learned, then elaborated upon. Finally, move to Joyce DiDonato (the Met's Elena) on her 2009 album Colbran, the Muse, and you have the bel canto revival in short form. Bel canto is a language, and Philip Gossett's Divas and Scholars is your phrasebook. There's no need to study any one particular work, since the observations that Gossett makes about such moments as Lucia di Lammermoor's mad scene help you understand this entire repertoire.

When Pagliacci returns to the Met on April 14, it will be the house's first new production of the opera in forty-five years. The work is much maligned, much caricatured and, incidentally, one of the finest operas ever. A reevaluation of an opera often involves a single singer, and a reevaluation of Pagliacci must include Teresa Stratas, one of the greatest practitioners of the art of music theater. The Stratas performance of Nedda, particularly in a DVD from a Met double bill with Il Tabarro, is an astute and defiant refutation of the distancing effect espoused in Tonio's Prologue, that "life onstage is not real life." Watching her performance in the little commedia dell'arte play in Act II, with a husband onstage and a lover in the audience, is a time-stands-still experience that coalesces the idea of life or death in opera. In the continually engaging Jeannie Williams biography Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life, Carol Vaness tells a parallel version of this story; Vaness sang Nedda opposite Vickers at the Paris Opera, and we are pleased to report that she is still alive.

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Librettist W. H. Auden
© akg-images/Imagno/Barbara Pflaum 2014

The season's most enticing conjunction of singer and poet comes in May, when the sly but elegant Gerald Finley meets the words of W. H. Auden (with Chester Kallman) in the Met revival of The Rake's Progress. (The opera also turns up in Portland, Oregon, the next month, where the Portland Art Museum offers a complementary exhibition of Hogarth prints.) Auden has been in the air lately, and it's time to pay attention. He was a character in the Gabriel Kahane musical February House, a show distinguished by the moment in which Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears sang a quasi-operatic duet about bedbugs. And he's a leading character in two plays, Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens, by Paul Godfrey, and the recent Alan Bennett delight The Habit of Art, both of which are published. The portrait of Auden in each of these three works lingers in the memory. A vivid portrait also emerges in the collected letters of Benjamin Britten, a project that has reached its sixth and final volume. Britten and Auden were tireless letter-writers (though Britten would never win any spelling prizes), and it is hard to imagine any bedtime reading more rewarding.

Les Troyens is always an event, but there will be extra excitement when this majestic ruined monument returns to San Francisco Opera next June: it will be a rare North American sighting of Anna Caterina Antonacci in an opera. Antonacci, an intensely theatrical live performer even in lieder recitals, can be seen as Cassandre on a DVD of Les Troyens from Paris (with her San Francisco Didon, Susan Graham, supported by an orchestra of period instruments under John Eliot Gardiner) and as Handel's Rodelinda on a DVD from Glyndebourne. Those of us who don't read ancient languages can still enjoy Virgil's Aeneid in the 2006 translation by Robert Fagles (Viking/Penguin paperback). In the vivid English of Fagles, the devastating scene of Aeneas desperately dashing through the smoldering ruins of Troy on that final fateful night is as exciting as any summer blockbuster action movie — or, for those of us who know who we are, much more exciting than any summer blockbuster action movie. And a Happy New Season to all. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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