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I Fanciulli del Met

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

One of the particular pleasures of my duties at OPERA NEWS is the privilege of attending final dress rehearsals at the Met. If anyone had told me as a young teenager, when I was first bitten by the opera bug, that some day going to the opera would be part of my job, I would have been in a much bigger hurry to grow up.

Of course, just getting to sit there for free in a red-plush seat (during the work day, no less) watching the great vocal artists of our time ply their trade is a pretty nifty perk in itself. But for me, a big part of the fun nowadays is being present along with a whole balcony-full of young people as they discover opera — many of them, no doubt, for the first time.

Last week, the Met revived Gian Carlo del Monaco's lively spaghetti-Western production of Puccini's brilliantly colorful and dramatic, achingly sentimental Fanciulla del West. It gave me a great kick to sense the surprise and excitement of those youngsters as they realized that this elevated art form had room in it for lusty barroom brawls, live horses and gunslinging women holding their own in an overwhelmingly male world. There was a distinctly twenty-first-century-feminist tinge to the audible reaction from the peanut gallery when Minnie first pulled her tiny pistol out of her bosom to fend off the advances of Jack Rance. And there's definitely something to be said for straightforward realism, especially where new audiences are concerned. I strongly doubt that if Minnie and Dick Johnson had appeared in some high-concept production, in the guise of, say, apes or bumble bees, the kids in the family circle would have burst into spontaneous, giggly applause when the heroine surrendered to her first kiss, or cheered her so heartily when she arrived just in time to free him from the posse.

There are times when audience noise can be a most unwanted distraction. (At that very same rehearsal, one fan was so eager to share his admiration of Marcello Giordani's "Ch'ella mi creda" that he shouted "Bravo!"at the top of his lungs just as an emphatic chord from the orchestra punctuated Jack Rance's punching the unfortunate Johnson in the gut. This musically and dramatically misplaced interruption gave the effect that the shouter was encouraging the sheriff's brutality.) The irrepressible and instinctively appropriate responses of the schoolchildren at the back of the house, on the other hand, lent an added charge to the proceeding that enhanced the experience for at least one jaded operagoer down in the orchestra section. spacer 



Big Music in Little Spaces

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

In the past couple of weeks, two musical events of a somewhat homespun nature have reminded me that the soul of great music lies not in such commercial principles as starry names and big crowds, nor even in note-perfect renditions of a score, but in the dedication, love and joy the performers bring to their task and the magical realms they weave for their listeners in sound. At any level, music-making, to be any good, must be a labor of love that draws the audience in and lets us share in the triumph, and that is precisely what emerged on both these occasions.

The first was a house concert hosted by my friend Jim, who decided on the spur of the moment to offer his living room as a venue for three talented musicians to try out a new program. The second was a concert performance of Handel's Rinaldo, uncut, with piano accompaniment, given at my local church by the New York Opera Forum. My friend's living room accommodates something short of twenty-five seats, and though the church is somewhat larger, it was, alas, less than a quarter full for this event. From a commercial standpoint, one might have thought it a waste of the artists' long hours of preparation to perform for audiences that, combined, would not have filled a single row at the Met.

Not so.

When the young violinist Colin Pip Dixon introduced the Kreuzer Sonata by reminding us that its dedicatee had declined ever to attempt the piece on the grounds that it was unplayable, then proceeded to play the bejesus out of it; when Ivy Adrian, at the keyboard, drew a whole symphony orchestra's worth of sound from Jim's parlor upright, with the rest of us so close behind her we could almost imagine we were playing this incredible music ourselves, surely Beethoven was well served.

When Tonia Manteneri all but literally raised the roof of the church with a whopping high note, from a spot barely twenty feet in front of us; when, in the Rinaldo–Almirena duet "Scherzano sul tuo volto," Marilyn Spesak and Karole Lewis traded exquisite and ravishingly voiced pedal-point effects that seemed to suspend time, or Spesak and Manteneri faced off in a war of notes more viscerally thrilling than any hyper-realistic 3D movie battle; when Richard Nechamkin, at the piano, transported every person in the room far from big-city cares to Almirena's serene and bucolic garden; when Tyler Wayne Smith, a countertenor I'd never heard of, sailed through Handel's formidable hurdles unscathed, in a voice of rich resonance and expressive warmth — surely these earnest performers' labor was not lost.

And when a casual operagoer cannot help laughing in sheer delight at the vocal fireworks; when an entire audience leans in to the keyboard as one with the pianist in a particularly intense passage, or exerts all its collective energy to will a singer through a particularly challenging passage, then cheers him to the rafters when he succeeds, the musical gods must be smiling as beneficently on these anonymous efforts as they ever smiled on the top box-office draw at the greatest opera house in the world. 

These names may never be household words in the music industry, but in my book, the thrilling connection they made with a small handful of music-lovers on those two memorable nights rendered them worthy present-day votaries to the same muse that inspired Handel and Beethoven so many years ago. spacer


Indelible Impressions

(Observations, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

I have always considered myself very lucky that my first two Broadway experiences, as a small child, were of two truly iconic performances — Yul Brynner's King in The King and I and Carol Channing's Dolly in Hello, Dolly! Both were, of course, late-career nostalgic revivals for their stars, but the dazzling charisma that had made their earlier portrayals famous was undimmed, and though I had nothing to compare these greats to at the time, the bar was set very high: I came to expect something special from a night at the theater, and to recognize and appreciate it when it did.

My operagoing life began in much the same way. Back in elementary school, I used to join eagerly in the annual class trips to the Met — sometimes a rehearsal, sometimes a student performance — led by my kindergarten teacher, herself a one-time Met chorister. Though I am sure at the time a large part of the draw was getting out of school for the day, I can recall several occasions on which my young ears were permanently imprinted with a level of vocal brilliance that I took for granted in my innocence but have valued more and more in retrospect. There was, for example, a student performance of La Traviata with Robert Merrill as Germont — the only time I heard the Great American Baritone live (with the exception of numerous Star-Spangled Banners at Yankee games) but more than enough to form my lasting impression of what a Verdi baritone should be.

Another memorable trip was a 1975 Puritani — a work that, needless to say, I had never heard of at the time, with a plot that, despite Mrs. Harris's best efforts, I was able to follow only in a vague, childish way. (I'm still not entirely sure I know what it is all about.) I remember a greater than usual sense of occasion — my parents were opera fans, so the names of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes were familiar to my fledgling ears even before Mrs. Harris had given us a glowing idea of what to expect. In the event, I am ashamed to confess that what remains of my first impression of the great Pavarotti is that the combination of his physique with the long cloak that hung over his long sword rendered his profile indistinguishable from that of a large duck, and that for all the ballyhoo I preferred the voice of Mr. Gross, the admirable tenor soloist in our church choir at the time.

Joan Sutherland, though, was a different matter. I remember thinking her appearance ideal — that great, imposing jaw seemed just right for an operatic heroine — but I remember most of all the astonishing accuracy of her coloratura, the awesome scale of her voice, and the sense that she was singing all her lines not because someone happened to have written some pretty music for them but because there were things she needed to express that could be communicated in no other way. Thanks to Sutherland, no one ever had to explain to me what the big deal about a "mad scene" was: the concept of music as a conveyer and enhancer of dramatic/emotional truth was unmistakable even to the merest novice. Sutherland knew how to achieve that strange operatic alchemy by which pain and suffering can be transformed through sound into transcendent beauty that touches the soul.

Her death this week was a reminder to me of how incredibly fortunate I'd been to have the privilege of hearing such once-in-a-lifetime artistry in the flesh. Much as I love listening to her recordings, I cherish much more that memory of having been there in real time. spacer 



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 









(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 


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Small World

(News, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Live in HD) Permanent link

This week, the "Arts, Briefly" section of The New York Times included the rather offhand announcement that the Met "recently reached an agreement with the authorities at the Cairo Opera House to show productions there this season." Audiences in distant Cairo will now be privy (via the company's series of Live in HD transmissions) to a whole slew of performances taking place on the Met stage even as they watch.

We take such technological marvels in stride nowadays, but what, one wonders, would Verdi have made of this development? Back in 1871, it took endless, painstaking negotiations to arrange for the world premiere of his Aida at Cairo's Khedivial Opera House, and in the event the proposed January opening fell victim to the Franco–Prussian War, which trapped the sets and costumes (not to mention the scenarist, Auguste Mariette) in Paris. Verdi had to wait another eleven months before the project came to fruition, and it took place without the composer in attendance, as he had decided the trip was too arduous to be worthwhile.

Could any of the participants in that cultural milestone for Cairo have imagined that one day whole seasons of opera from another continent could be wafted over the airwaves to Egyptian shores? spacer 


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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 


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 

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


(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

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