Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Scala Tristan on Youtube

I started watching a tad of the La Scala telecast (or whatever you'd call it) of Tristan und Isolde, the one from last December that was telecast in a number of theaters Stateside (but I missed it), and it's now in bits and pieces all over youtube which is a helluva way to see an opera as long and complex and concentrated as Tristan.

But it's addictive, not least because it's so much better a performance than the one (well, I saw two and heard four) that played the Met this month. The staging was very modern but not pointless (the only point of the Met staging was so Jane "the Blob" Eaglen, for whom it was originally created, would be seen to move as little as possible, since moving on stage is the only thing she does worse than sing). Barenboim conducted a moving, not too heavy account of the score, the Tristan (Ian Storey) wobbled more than one might like (we had that better in New York), Salminen as Marke and De Young as Brangaene sing significantly better and act far more intensely than they did here, and Waltraud Meier is - an Isolde! a revelation! imperfect but, as actress and singer, brilliant of voice and extraordinary in movement and look. The real deal. Debbie Voigt is fast losing what little claim she has to any vocal eminence, and her Isoldes were disgraceful, just not acceptable on any major stage. Janice Baird, her gallant occasional replacement, was a little better but not a triumph in the part.

Meier is the real deal. So is this performance of Tristan, which I intend to acquire as soon as it is available on video - though I have the old Bayreuth Barenboim performance, am supposed to be reviewing it for Opera Today (and I will! I will! but I haven't got around to it yet).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Wagnerian Question: What Was the Holy Grail

On a newsgroup, someone brought up the question of Wagner's interpretation of Christianity, a thing that much vexes Wagnerians because ... frankly ... it seems so smarmy ... and unchristian ... and because it's hard to enjoy Parsifal, his last drama, without dealing with it. (I love the opera myself.)

The guy who brought it up asked if it was true Wagner thought Christianity was NOT derived from Judaism at all -- I knew he was part of a very large group of European Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wished to believe this, but was unaware of their justifications for it. (I've seen Otter Zell's, which are quite bad enough, and have to do with Christ dying for our sins -- hardly a Jewish doctrine, now, is it?)

To this someone who knew a great deal more than I do on the matter responded by quoting letters from Wagner to Liszt that averred that Christianity was really an outgrowth of Buddhism, bypassing all Jewish connection (hard to fit the life of Jesus into that time line but ... whatever), and that the basic message of early Christianity (per Wagner) was renunciation of unnecessary experience (hard to fit that into Wagner's lifestyle ... but whatever) and ending the cycle of reincarnation. That certainly fits with Parsifal's heroine, Kundry, who besides being a figure from the medieval Parzival epic, is in the opera the Wandering Jewess, a reincarnation of Herodias, who in this version was cursed by laughing at Jesus as he carried the cross down the Via Dolorosa.

So I wondered if you had heard anything in any of your classes about the "influence" of Buddhist thought on early Christianity, through some spurious link (trade links undoubtedly existed) between the Middle East and India, and a possible visit of Jesus to India (en route from Glastonbury no doubt)?

Meanwhile, back at the Kaaba, still another mystic chimed in on the thread with word that the Holy Grail -- and I'd always heard that this was originally (paganly) a wish-granting Stone rather than an all-sustaining Chalice (outgrowth, that latter, of the Celtic mythic cauldron of the Dagda or whosever it was -- Lugh? Cerridwyn?) -- was originally a magical ithyphallic stone dropped from heaven upon the place beneath, the sort of thing (meteoric iron?) often worshipped by oriental peoples, notably the Heliogabalus stone in Aramaea and, of course, the Kaaba in Mecca (last survivor of these cults). Somehow the cultic, ethereally-derived sanctity of these stones got tied in with the Stone of Scone and the visit to Britain (with or without chalice) of Joseph of Arimathea. (Or his visit to the Priory of Sion, for that matter -- backdated.)

Is there a traceable line here, from cult A to cult B to cult C to the medieval epics (were they influenced by talk of the Kaaba? Were the Templars during their sojourn on the Mount? Were the crusaders who visited Spain and might there have been introduced to Islamic mysticism?) to Wagner's great game of symbolic musical chairs?

In Istanbul (it always re-sets to Istanbul), in a little mosque that had once been a sixth-century Byzantine church (the oldest in town), the sexton (if that is the word, and it's not) proudly showed me little squares of black stone inset in the mihrab and above the portal: cut from the Kaaba in Mecca! he said. The only mosque in Istanbul with stone from the Kaaba! Fortunately the place had other charms. But a link -- a palpable link.


(My opera reviews can be found at

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mariella Devia: How to sing properly

Thursday night I got to the Thalia for a presentation of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, a performance taped live at La Scala. I've missed this series so far, and can report a most rewarding viewing experience.

Maria Stuarda so horrified the pious Queen of Naples at the dress rehearsal in 1835 (her ancestor, Mary Queen of Scots, calling another queen "bastarda" seems to have done it) that she fainted dead away, and the opera was cancelled. Word of this reached the great diva Maria Malibran, who demanded that the work be staged for her, first at La Scala in Milan, then in Turin (the Queen of Naples' home town) - one performance in each city was enough to arouse the wrath of the censors. The opera was not performed again until 1955 - although the Schiller play from which it is derived has long been a classic and a constant of the German stage.

Its rediscovery in modern times immediately made it a repertory piece for a reason dear to the heart of impresarios and audiences everywhere: Dueling divas! Think Johnny Guitar in Italian, with cabalettas. My first Stuarda - it was, in fact, my first Donizetti opera - was a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall with Monsterrat Caballe as Mary and Shirley Verrett as Elizabeth. (They also performed it together all over Europe.) Verrett entered in a dark green silk sheath, low cut over her magnificent figure, displaying her chocolate brown skin, her black hair piled high - the most regal thing I'd ever seen in my life - as is still true. "Queenly" doesn't do her justice. (Though her hair is now white, she is still a beauty.) The contrast with Caballe, short, dumpy, in black as always (when not in costume), could hardly have been greater. And at the end of Act II, when Elizabeth pushes Mary to explode in her face, "figlia impura de Bolena," "vil bastarda" and all, it was clear that the two ladies and Donizetti had all Carnegie on the edge of its seats, steam coming out of our ears, and the ladies couldn't resist a little grin of "we-got-'em-going-now!" complicity to each other. Not historically correct! But such fun.

I've seen the opera several times subsequently - Beverly Sills at NYCO (who was her Elizabeth? Stapp? Marsee?), Sutherland at the Philadelphia Opera (with Huguette Tourangeau), and at the opera houses of Mannheim and Basel. The work has never been presented at the Metropolitan Opera - Bing didn't trust bel canto (while it was sweeping the rest of the operatic world). And my experience has taught me, first: don't cut the prayer in the final scene, the work's musical high point, and don't get a second rater for either queen - the opera only works if you have two top talents there. No one gives a damn about the men (on the Scala broadcast they were notably mediocre), and the production can be any old thing, but you need dueling divas, and women who know, really know bel canto style, to pull the thing off. Then you can rely on Donizetti, a stage craftsman to his fingertips: the machine will work!

This performance starred Mariella Devia, a singer the Met has never taken to its heart, who is crowding sixty and still singing all over Europe. Her antagonist (if you will) was Anna Caterina Antonacci. Neither lady looked good in closeup or the weird costumes of the production. But who cares? We came for bel canto. Antonacci was a striking figure and the seething anger underneath her roulades was everywhere in evidence. The great climax (in Schiller's and Donizetti's Act II, though it is rare to have an intermission there now) is Elizabeth's decision, motivated in part by jealousy of Leicester, her favorite, who has been flirting with Mary, partly by rage at the plots of Mary's supporters to seize her throne, partly by Cecil's muttering hostility to the Scottish queen, and partly by womanly curiosity, to make her first visit to her cousin and prisoner. As everyone knows, the two ladies never met in life - Elizabeth took good care of that. (Mary was famously charming, and desperately sought the encounter.) Most people also know that Elizabeth was reluctant to execute her cousin as it set such a bad precedent to put a monarch to death, and that (after 20 years) she finally permitted it for solely political reasons. But theater and opera (and film) versions of history always have sex as the reason for everything.

So: it's Act II, our prima donna has already sung a double aria (necessary on a first entrance into the opera) to show us what sort of woman she is - and what exquisite, delicate, fluttering ornaments Devia introduced to it, unobtrusive, born of character and situation just as they should be. Then in comes Leicester, followed by - the Queen! The setup is so operatic, it seems hard to believe Schiller's drama was not written for musical setting. The characters, one after another, examine their internal feelings - and we hear it all! Tension mounts. (Take that, Mary Zimmerman.) Then Elizabeth (suppressing her nervousness and keeping an eye on Leicester's reactions) taunts Mary, abased but proud. Her refusal to grovel arouses Elizabeth's fury - and she goes too far. This is very Ancient Greek tragedy: the figure in authority who abuses it, commits hubris. Whereupon Mary, supposedly powerless and defeated, her life at stake, springs to action, breathing fire, hurls insults in the face of a reigning queen (no wonder the censors had fits), concluding with obscenity: "It is a disgrace that the throne of England should be occupied by a - bastard!" The excitement here is that the downtrodden woman has turned out to have power after all, a moral force before which Elizabeth quails and is defeated - her only way to snatch victory is by brute force, to condemn her rival to death - which after a stretta that should bring any audience to its feet, she does. The curtain falls.

You can see this scene played magnificently on youtube by Caballe and Bianca Berini. Berini was a little-heralded much-loved singer of the grand old Italian style, and when she sang, everything was on the line; she never gave a less than thrilling performance, and her Elizabeth is superb, arrogant, horrified. Caballe is not at her best expressing rage, but she pulled it off now and then.

Act III shows us Elizabeth's hesitations over signing the death warrant, and her misery at finally being driven to it - but she does it. The next scene is a major tour de force for singing actress (it was Sills's high point), when she confesses to the murder of her second husband and is absolved by a disguised priest. The high point of the final scene is the great prayer (often omitted by idiot impresarios or exhausted sopranos) sung by Mary and the chorus, where she holds a soft note for the entire recap of the melody by the chorus, and then rises in arpeggio before she can take a breath at last. If you CAN do it, you're a Maria Stuarda; if you can't, maybe you shouldn't sing this part. Caballe, Gencer, Sutherland could all do it. But who today?

This was Devia's coronation: nearing sixty, and having sung for two hours straight, she was not only capable of these endless phrases, but her voice maintained a glorious sweetness all through, reminding us that bel canto does not mean wrestle the music to the ground; it means beautiful singing. Devia sang Donizetti in this performance as no woman has sung it in New York in twenty years - and showed up the fakery, the gimcrackery of Fleming, Gheorghiu, Dessay, Massis, Futral, and the lovely but bland essays of Swenson for what they are. It was a golden age performance.

Aside from the two ladies, there was nothing to notice here. But in this opera, that's all you need: two game girls. Whatever Happened to Baby Liz? You won't believe the answer!

Replacements, replacements: Ernani

I never go to a prima if I can help it; I got to the second performance of Ernani this season on Friday. Sondra Radvanovsky called in sick, replaced by a debutante, Angela Meade, who had aroused interest at the Met auditions a year or two back.

Ernani gets very little respect. For years, before the 1930s, it was the only pre-Rigoletto Verdi anyone ever heard, and it struck listeners as an unwieldy rough sketch for Trovatore. Certainly, as with Trovatore, it makes its biggest effect if you have four great singers on stage willing to toss caution (but not technique) to the winds. Such singers faded out after World War II, just about the time the world was rediscovering the charms of Macbeth and Nabucco and Don Carlos. The Met had them for a while, but it doesn't have them now.

The 1983 production is gaudy-grandiose, designed to circulate (staircase by staircase) gigantically around Luciano Pavarotti at his peak, when many other things could be ignored. Giordani looks slim for it; unfortunately he sounds slim for it too - the metallic sheen that can thrill in Gioconda and Huguenots and Tosca sounds a bit unvaried here, where the tenor must sing double-arias without much personality or plot development to give them character. He was, I believe, ill advised to retain the Act II double aria - his second of the evening - that the Met dug out of the archives and inserted for Pavarotti's benefit. It does not fit in the drama - Verdi tossed it off as a favor - and for 1500 ducats - to a tenor protégé of Rossini, then the grand old man (52 to Verdi's 30) of Italian opera, whom Verdi did not know and wished to cultivate. Worse, Giordani sounded desperate for a glass of water halfway through, and though he managed the rest, was forcing his way through the line.

Thomas Hampson sang Don Carlo gracefully, as is appropriate - he is the only main character in this opera, after all, who is not certifiably insane. Ferruccio Furlanetto sounded woolly and, well, old, as Silva - who is old, so that was all right. No Ramey-esque wobble, a performance of some distinction.

As for the debutante: Angela Meade, a pretty, plump-ish (not fat) lady who sang the role without stage rehearsal, managed "Ernani involami" without crashing and burning and some lovely scalework at the end, but some bumpy bits before that and a colorless trill. The Met, being the Met, responded politely. Then she seemed to fade away, voice vanishing or else it was some pretty high notes and an unconnected chest in Acts II and III. Strange and unsettling — just too young or voice too small for the house, I wasn't sure. But she was perhaps holding back (she certainly didn’t act unsure of herself): In Act IV she came rushing in with that big high A to launch the final trio, and suddenly we’re across the border into Verdiland: a full-sized deep and even spinto of great beauty with good top and great passion. Don’t ask me where this person (and voice) had been all night because there had been hardly a peep of it before. Evening concludes in triumph.

(If you can only manage one note, make it your last one and audiences will forgive you anything; if you waste the good notes to begin, they’ll have forgotten them by the time you conclude.)

So … she’s young … she has potential … will she be Tebaldi or Susan Dunn? (Or — yitch — Mescheriakova.) Is it the rich turtle soup I’m tasting or merely the mock?

It was an interesting night.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Isolde p.s. - On Debbie Voigt

Voigt's two great pre-op roles were Ariadne and Sieglinde - I can't say she ever knocked me out as anything else. (Though the first time I heard her Helena, from Row C in Fisher Hall, I was certainly blissed out.) (Also: a couple of giggling queens had sneaked down to the front row center and copped some empty seats there. As Debbie came grandly, diva-lich onto the stage, one of them shouted, "Debbie!" She looked, broke pose, cried (soundlessly), "Oh, YOU!" with a big, friendly grin - then went seamlessly back to august hieratic diva pose. I thought: She's a jolly girl who enjoys her friends. AND she can sing.)

But can she?

While I’ve enjoyed la Voigt’s Elisabeth and Kaiserin and Helena, even some of her Amelia, since the operation, I have noticed (without ever speculating on cause, as I am neither a doctor nor a voice specialist, just ears in the audience) a certain flaccidity in her vocal production recently and a fading of brilliance below the staff. Also she doesn’t seem to have thought roles through — her Four Last Songs and her cabaret act and that first Isolde at Fisher Hall a few years ago were deeply disappointing evenings. On Friday, she sounded like stones in one of those polishing machines, rumbling against each other. High notes were still brilliant, but rare, and seemed to demand more of her than she had to give. (Her eyes bugged out when she got them.) Below A, she had no brilliance and no effect - the narration meant nothing, the curse went for naught, there was no tension until the confrontation with Tristan, and that was extra-vocal. She was beginning to warm up FINALLY at the very time she decided to call it quits and fled the stage. Whether this was a one-day illness or part of a long decline cannot now be said. I have never been an uncritical fan of this instrument or artist, but I’m very sad that its potential has perhaps been squandered.

The operation may or may not have been a bad idea. (What would she have done before the surgery became available? Exercised it out like Callas?) The Little Black Dress scandal is the best thing that ever happened to her publicity-wise — suddenly she was famous around the world (who had been unknown outside opera fan circles before); the gallant Brits took her to their hearts at Wigmore and elsewhere as a woman unchivalrously scorned; and to fat ladies everywhere, she became a heroine. This is fabulous capital in our culture nowadays. But it does not make her a major Wagnerian, and I’ve seen few signs of the intellectual rigor, the ability to give meaning to vocalism, or lately just the vocalism for Isolde, a psychologically complicated role with a whole lot of singing over a very wide range - unlike the Kaiserin, you can’t make it on high notes alone. (This is true of all Wagner roles, actually - as GBS used to point out, he used the whole voice, not just the pretty top.)

It may be time for Debbie to rethink her entire career and approach to singing and choice of roles - just because impresarios offer you a spot, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. (They don’t care if you foul up. They just want to sell tickets.)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bet this never happened to you at the movies ...

I bet this doesn't happen at the movies:

As the flick begins, they announce that Matt Damon has a virus and had to leave; he's being replaced by someone who's never done the part before.

But it's okay.

Then, halfway through, Gwyneth Paltrow (the star) goes running off-screen, leaving the guy hanging in mid love scene.

After a moment, the screen goes dark (but not before you saw the panic in his eyes).


Then they announce Miss Paltrow is ill, and will be replaced by (name you never heard of).

She wears the same dress and wig but doesn't look anything like her.

She takes a while to warm up, but hey, Daniel Day-Lewis walks off with the character part anyway. (As you expected.)

Somehow the kid gets through the big final scene, and the girl takes the climax.

Thundering ovation.

You never had that happen to you at the movies, did you? (Low class bastards.)

At the Met tonight, Tristan und Isolde.

Rumors of doom had been circulating since the disastrous prima on Monday.

Ben Heppner, virused up, has run back to Canada. (He's been cracking on all his high notes anyway.) The tenor who replaced him Monday was so bad, he was booed off the stage. (Ugly too, they tell me.)

So tonight they found some kid who'd never sung Tristan before.

Gary Lehman (this is a heldentenor?)

We're all very hopeful. (Besides, Matti Salminen is King Marke, and bound to be a hit.)

Peter Gelb, announcing the change, looks like he has veins of ice water and this happens all the time.

The kid is tall, well built, looks like Errol Flynn, sings okay, acts okay, keeps an eye fixed on Jimmy.

Then, halfway through the love duet in Act II, Debbie Voigt runs off stage. To get a drink of water I presumed. The tenor just sort of stands there, singing ardently to a blank stage, Jimmy keeps conducting ... the curtain comes down.


Someone (not Gelb) comes out to say: Don't leave the room, Debbie's sick, some soprano no one has heard of (Janice Baird, and she IS on the roster) is getting dressed and will take over.

Of course she hasn't had time (much less a whole act) to warm up, but anyway:

At last we get the duet again (which means the poor Tristan will be singing more of the opera in one night than ANYONE EVER HAS).

Isolde finally warms up by the climax.

Matti Salminen walks off with it, as I knew he would.

In the intermission, my friend La Cieca (opera columnist a l'outrance, see says, "I'm speechless."

I said, "Don't tell me we'll have to replace you too!"

Well, Lehman sings Act III, the toughest workout for tenor ever composed.

Doesn't sound fabulous, but he's okay. No cracked high notes.

Isolde rushes in clumsily (she's never rehearsed), sings Liebestod. She's okay.

Silence to the last chord.

Standing ovation for the pair, then for the whole cast, then for Jimmy.

It's 1 a.m. and nobody wants to leave without screaming.

Nobody wanted to have been, for those six hours, anywhere else in the world.

I bet you've never been at a movie where this happened.

Live theater forever!

(And down with microphones!)

P.S. During the pause in Act II, while we waited for Isolde, we told each other stories of memorable stage disasters we'd seen. In my case, this always (but not from now on!) means the infamous Carlo Bini Gioconda. The woman behind me, however, had been at a Princess Ida in Symphony Space - the Ida had got sick, somehow they found another woman who knew the role but not the staging. In mid-Act II, where Ida falls off a bridge and is rescued from drowning by gallant Prince Hilarion, the lady fell on top of the tenor, knocking him out. Some flurry of activity, and then Hilarion appears to sing his two stanzas of aria. And the audience notices something funny: Yes, it's a different guy in the same costume. Luckily, he only had to sing that solo before being dragged off-stage till well into Act III. But I'm sure Al Bergeret was sweating blood.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Swear Not by the Moon - Lucia revisited

Last night, after attending Purcell's (or, rather, Mark Morris's) King Arthur at the City Opera (Purcell and the singers and dancers got applause; Morris got some boos; radiant, he shanti'd to us as usual, and gave the finger to the balconies - shame and abashment are not to be found in his gestural vocabulary), I sneaked over to the Met for Act III of Lucia di Lammermoor. (My review of King Arthur will appear on

I'd seen the controversial Mary Zimmerman production of Lucia and the same cast except for the tenor three times last fall, liking it less each time, feeling the singers were out of their depth and the director out of her proper employment - she seems neither to understand opera nor to respect it, nor to want to understand it better - and I was not wild about the sets either. But my pal Suzanne was in town from Wisconsin, determined to get into Lucia, so that she'd even bought herself a $15 standing room upstairs. I told her not to be silly; we strolled the plaza before the performance and found her a nice Dress Circle seat for sale instead (dodging the scalpers, out in force), from a group of South African tourists one of whose group was ill. Suzanne went to Lucia, I went to Arthur with friend Tom, and she gave me the standing room to do as I wished with.

So the moment Arthur was done, I ran over to the Met, got a fistful of Grand Tier tickets from departing suburbanites, and whisked Suzanne to that lower level, bumping into Dan Foley of the Ottocento Grand Opera (Mercadante e Pacini per sempre!) and Gabriel, who congratulated me on my published letters in the Times and The New Yorker. (In the old days, he would have congratulated me on my essays in the Met program, but the Gelb folks have decided I am too esoteric for their masses - moi! - and these no longer appear though they can still be found on line at Playbill.) Suzanne had saved me half a brownie.

She didn't care for the production, "but I wanted to see your Polish prince as Enrico. He looks great!" Yes, well, Kwiecien always does that. But I wish he would sing, not scream. "You're right," she said. "When he doesn't scream, the voice is caramel. You could just melt into it." "Yes, he's utterly seductive - when he doesn't scream. Catch him in Mozart - he doesn't scream in Mozart." I can't decide whether to go stay with Suzanne later this month to catch the Mariusz's Onegin in Chicago. "Oh go ahead," she said. "I'll lend you some frequent flyer miles."

We nestled in Row C center and the curtain rose. Act III of this production, you may recall, is a grand curving staircase to a crosswalk and, in the final scene, a huge rusticated arch beside a graveyard. The backdrop for the whole act is a huge ominously blue night sky with a cratered moon the size of forty thousand pizzas filling most of it. "I love the backdrop," I told Suzanne, "but don't ask me what it has to do with the story." She considered. "It's the moon - isn't that the woman's ruling planet? And it's supposed to drive people mad?" "That's very good - thank you!" said I.

Nothing like fresh eyes on confusion to straighten matters out. Onstage (after some mild hysteria between Kwiecien and Filianoti and some decent singing with the beginnings of an old man's wobble from Relyea, who is too young for such a trait, Dessay, having gone mad on her wedding night and stabbed her husband 29 times, came dribbling down the stairs dabbled in scarlet and sang a much stronger mad scene than she had last fall. I think she has got the measure of the house, perhaps. Still not Sutherland, still an unwieldy trill, but impressive. "I saw her do it in Chicago two years ago," Suzanne said. "That was a lovely production. But she's marvelous tonight." So was Filianoti in the tomb scene. I shut my eyes when (the director's idea) the ghost returned so I could focus just on the singing. It shouldn't be necessary to do that at an opera, but these concept directors make me crazy that way.

The Moon for Madness, especially in overwrought, sexually abused women. Very good. I still eagerly await Mary Zimmerman's last opera staging. She just doesn't think singing is dramatic, and I do.

"And I love this opera," whispered Suzanne as we departed. (So do I.) "Of course we have to see it again tomorrow." That was a joke. Tonight we're going to Tristan und Isolde, which isn't quite the same story, though it shares the Celtic element and the darkness and the double deaths.