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Yellow Tail Wine's Operatic Offense

(Observations, Adam Wasserman, Listening, Criticism, Commercials) Permanent link

Opera and television occupy decidedly different spheres of my life, and, truth be told, I'll almost always choose the former over the latter. Television usually only fits the bill when I'm looking for a quiet night in, with minimal impact on my grey matter or wallet. And — as someone who really only finds inner peace after a stressful day by watching onions caramelize — I'll often default to just three channels during the course of an evening in front of the tube: the Food Network, the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel. As a result of occupying what I assume is a rather predictable gustatory demographic, the number of times that I've encountered the below commercial for Yellow Tail wine in the past few months now stands somewhere close to the number of pages currently stuffed into Charlie Sheen's police file.

Fellow opera-goers, I ask you: is this not the lamest, most odious commercial ever aired? If any of you are like me, the appearance of this ad must also prompt your family and friends to burst into laughter at the conspicuous rising of your blood pressure, that pulsing vein in your neck, your violent clenching of the chair arms, followed by obscene gesturing at the television and an apoplectic descent into the nadirs of the English vocabulary. Let me say, unequivocally, that I despise this commercial more than any piece of advertising I've ever encountered. According to the information accompanying the YouTube video, the ad was created by the Burns Group, an agency known as such a conspicuous arbiter of good taste that its other clients include Fruity-Cocoa Pebbles, Beck's Beer and Hebrew National hot dogs.

I suppose what makes this ad so fundamentally insulting to me as an opera-goer is that, in addition to it being obvious that the director knows nothing about the art form he's skewering, it's viscerally repellent. Clearly filmed on a shoestring budget — it was shot on location in the perennially teeming vacation spot that is Rovinj, Croatia — the spilled wine looks like thick strawberry Kool-Aid and the voices are out-of-sync with the actors. Most notably, though, their voices are off pitch and abysmal. They're not just bad parodies of trained operatic voices — they also happen to bad. Could the folks at the Burns Group really not find a pair of young, conservatory trained singers that could, at the very least, do this lame jingle justice?

The tagline for the ad, "Great wine doesn't have to be expensive," seems to suggest that the commercial's creators equate opera — or some terribly conceived signifier for it — with the one label that still seems deserving of derision in an era notable for the relative degree of political correctness in commercial advertising: elitist. The truth of the matter is that opera isn't nearly as snobby or — with the popularity of Live in HD screenings and rush ticket programs — expensive as the commercial's creators seem to think. Nor, for that matter, is Yellow Tail's shiraz anything even approaching "great." (According to the company, Yellow Tail's chardonnay is "best served at backyard temperature," while a recommended food-pairing for its merlot is a chicken sandwich. Bacchus, it seems, has become a fan of KFC.)

Maybe I'm being oversensitive about a mindless portrayal of an art form that I love, or maybe it's just that this ad seems so completely devoid of any of the redeeming characteristics attendant in the other commercials that have drawn opera as inspiration. (Ghirardelli Chocolate and British Airways, which both use Lakmé's flower duet, and Johnsonville Italian Sausages, which ran a commercial with Domingo's "Di quella pira" as its soundtrack a few years back, stick out in my mind as particularly effective.) Either way, it's rare that I see a commercial that strikes me as so repugnant that I'll actually go out of my way to avoid a company's product — let alone write a 700 word screed about it. Yellow Tail has done the deed. I'd rather have a glass full of bits of cork. spacer 

ADAM WASSERMAN

The Music of My Life

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

After a very trying week that has included watching over an aging parent in the hospital, waiting for the insurance inspectors to arrive in the tornado-torn streets of my hometown and enduring a plumbing crisis that will deprive me of my accustomed morning shower for weeks and cost half a year's salary to fix, I found myself trying to fend off insanity by contemplating my personal woes in terms of an operatic soundtrack that might distill immortal beauty from temporal madness as only the lyric art can do.

If I were to choose a composer to orchestrate the more tempestuous events of my life of late, it would have be Verdi, whose storm scenes so brilliantly capture the fascinating and humbling combination of terror and natural splendor evoked in the human breast by what the law and the insurance companies quaintly refer to as "Acts of God." Of course, the start of Wagner's Walküre belongs high on the list of torrential depictions, as does the wonderful Wolf's Crag scene in Lucia ("Orrida e questa notte," indeed!), not to mention Peter Grimes's hurricane-force seacoast monsoon. And no one but Verdi himself could have topped the magnificent tempest that precipitates Gilda's demise in Rigoletto. But given my druthers, I would go with Otello's electrifying opening as aural backdrop to the wild weather that overturned ancient oaks and sent trees crashing onto rooftops in my erstwhile shady and sheltered New York City neighborhood.

Verdi again takes the laurels for music that expresses the exquisite and lingering anguish of watching a loved one in failing health. Could one ask for a more moving accompaniment for gnawing filial worry than the finale of Simon Boccanegra, with poor Amelia murmuring in that inimitably melodious fashion of Verdi's, "No, non morrai, l'amore vinca di morte il gelo. Risponderà dal cielo pietade al mio dolor" .

As for something to help conquer the horror of the water pouring relentlessly through our kitchen ceiling for hours on end, well, do not Tamino and Pamina brave their watery trials with fortitude and even joy under the wondrous musical umbrella that issues from his magic flute, which transforms the deluge to a sparkling waterfall and stretches a kind of existential rainbow over their heads even in the face of disaster .

In the end, though, what one really needs to pull one through such a disheartening stretch is a sense of humor. So I think, really, the most appropriate soundtrack for my life at present would be found here — at Fawlty Towers. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Sounds of Love

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Cinema, Listening, John Adams, Soundtracks) Permanent link

Luca Guadagnino's film Io Sono l’Amore, which is being billed in the U.S. as I Am Love, is an enchanting consideration of love in a modern Italian world.

The movie is a delight for the senses, and not just because of the shots of the ancient-seeming, lavishly appointed villas. The director cobbled together preexisting music composed by John Adams to create the film score. The results are anything but your typical, sentimental movie-music. The selections, including "The Chairman Dances" and excerpts from Harmonielehre, have the clear, ringing and invigorating sounds that mark Adams's early-career minimalist compositions — music that seems to awaken the movie's heroine, played by the magnificent Tilda Swinton, to the life-affirming power of love.

Below, Swinton calls it Adams's "unedited" sound, which is a nice way to put it. spacer 

—OUSSAMA ZAHR

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Musical Feast

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

This has been a pleasant enough summer in the Big Apple, with no shortage of cultural offerings on hand, but one longstanding tradition I miss is the Met's Operas in the Parks, whose forty-plus-year history of bringing free, full-length opera performances to tri-state-area parks has to stand among the greatest gifts any arts organization has ever offered to its public.

One of the great joys of summer is listening to music al fresco — preferably on a lush lawn, with a group of good friends and a lavish picnic spread before you. There's something about the fresh air that enhances both the love of food and the food of love and makes the whole experience transcend the sum of its part. Yes, the mosquitoes can be annoying, the ground is hard and sometimes damp, and the speakers, especially if one is a bit removed from the stage, can hardly be said to transmit a lifelike surround-sound effect. Indeed, it's often hard to tell whether what one is hearing is a transcendent performance by a great virtuoso or something more run-of-the-mill. Worst of all, the company outside one's own blanket can be noisy and noisome. We've all had to sit next to the chain-smokers, the chatty Cathys, the cell-phone addicts, the parents who think their children's shrieks of delight or whines of sheer boredom add something to the musical texture. Still, it is always great music being played or sung at a high level under the inspiring vault of nature, and even on occasions when all the aforementioned irritations have conspired together to detract from the hoped-for idyllic setting, I have seldom regretted spending an evening in this fashion.

Of course, New York still has the Philharmonic's summer concerts, and the Met, even in these hard times, has been generous enough to provide its own free Summerstage events, featuring up-and-coming operatic artists alongside some seasoned stars. But one of my favorite things about those complete opera evenings of yore, when I lay stretched out in the grass with thousands of my fellow New Yorkers as bel canto or verismo filled the air, was the pleasant awareness that many of my neighbors were just dipping their toes into this fabulous art form I love so much for the very first time, taking advantage of the chance to let a whole opera wash over them without having to commit to the price of a ticket or put on their Sunday best or sit still in a red plush seat for hours at a time. Despite the limitations of the sound system, a live, full-length performance gives a sense of what opera is all about that cannot be had from a concert of excerpts. (A week's worth of HD screenings on the plaza does provide the complete-opera experience, but not the thrill of living the music in real time along with the singers, or the decadence of lolling about on a blanket in the midst of a lofty cultural event.) I used to love to eavesdrop on the pre-concert and intermission conversations of my neighbors, as they tried to make sense of the often perplexing synopsis or offered their awed newbie takes on the singing, and on the astonishing scope and scale of the whole endeavor. And for every rambunctious child that spoiled my enjoyment of a favorite musical moment, there was another, rapt and open-mouthed at this novel sound-world, whose wonderstruck enjoyment exponentially multiplied my own.

It's great that some of the Met's young artists are getting a new kind of exposure via the free concerts on Summerstage. But I cannot help hoping that one summer soon the grand-scale, full-cast-and-orchestra performances that once captivated seas and seas of people on the Great Lawn will be back in business again. spacer 

— LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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   

 

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


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