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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

True Blood: The Opera (proposed casting)

True Blood: The Opera


Sookie Stackhouse: Elina Garanca

Jason Stackhouse: Mariusz Kwiecien
Granny Stackhouse: Ewa Podles
Tara: Danielle de Niese
Lettie Mae: Angela Brown
Lafayette: Lawrence Brownlee
Detective Andy Bellefleur: Dwayne Croft
Sheriff: Bryn Terfel
Eggs: Eric Owens
Hoyt: Paul Appleby
Hoyt’s mother: Stephanie Blythe
Arlene: Sondra Radvanovsky
Rene: Roberto Alagna
Terry Bellefleur: David Daniels
Amy: Kate Lindsay
Steve Newlin: Richard Croft
Sarah Newlin: Kate Aldrich
Wayne: Evgeny Nikitin

Bill: Jonas Kaufmann
Eric: Simon Keenlyside
Nan: Nina Stemme
Jessica: Ljuba Petrova
Pam: Marina Poplavskaya
Lorena: Soile Isokoski
Russell: Charles Anthony
Sophie-Anne: Anna Netrebko
Godric: Juan Diego Florez

Other types:
Sam Merlotte: Ramon Vargas
Maryann Foster: Joyce di Donato
Daphne: Christine Schaefer
Tommy Mickens: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Crystal Norris: Wendy Bryn Harmer
Melinda Mickens: Natalie Dessay
Alcide: Luca Pisaroni


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Trovatore at the Met

It’s difficult to be reasonable about Il Trovatore. Reason is the last quality we expect from any of its characters or situations. They are extreme people, yielding unreflectively to extreme passions. Verdi’s score expresses just that element (richly evident in its source, a blood-and-thunder Gutierrez drama somewhat watered down for the libretto in order to appease papal censors), and the singing should emerge with just this sort of unreasoning passion. We may not believe that X loves Y, but we ought to believe their minds are at fever pitch: “I’m going to hit that orgasmic high note if it kills me.” No, you never hear a Trovatore like that any more, but back when all theater was live theater and Il Trovatore was the most popular theater piece on Earth, that’s the sort of excitement you could hope for. If you want it now, you might want to check out the old RCA recording with Milanov, Barbieri, Bjoerling and Warren. And that was an everyday Metropolitan Opera cast!

The Met’s current David McVicar production in Charles Edwards’s unattractive but functional sets (time period: Spain during a civil war—any old civil war—there were plenty to choose from, but anyway it’s not the one in 1410 where Gutierrez set it) is not without its absurdities. (Why are all those floozies hanging around the soldiers’ camp, acting so very camp, when the general is formally reviewing his troops?) But the job gets done and sets up the singers to play their parts with minimal fuss.

One particular thing struck me about the leading singers on this occasion: None of them had their eyes glued to the conductor. Singers who sing to lovers, tormenters, wounded children or God while keeping an eye on the baton the whole time are often a necessary evil, a whimsy one grows used to, but it was a pleasure to have the stars of this revival, though they never lost the beat (and conductor Marco Armiliato never let Verdi’s powerful rhythms fade or grow less than propulsive), looking at each other the entire night. They were in it, they were on it. This is one of those professional touches you hardly notice if you’re not looking for it—and are accustomed to too many singers who can’t manage it.

You seldom get four top stars in top form in a Trovatore, but the opera calls for just that. On this occasion no one sang badly but the glitter was seldom gold. The men had it rather over the women; their voices seemed better designed for singing Verdi. One felt in especially good hands with the Count di Luna of Željko Lučić, who makes one think the great days of the Verdi baritone live again. His “Il balen” was flawless, the long, long line filling the house without effort, each note on the proper pitch as though his throat could not consider putting it anywhere else. I don’t remember there being quite so much bladework in this production, but Lučić certainly startled the house when he drew his sword through his hand, drenching it in blood, in his determination to possess Leonora. He held his own in the confrontational duets and trios, too.

Marcelo Álvarez sang his offstage serenades beautifully (to the accompaniment of a harp that never appeared—hey, guys, he’s a troubadour, y’know?) but his double aria in the besieged fortress seemed on the gruff side and he ran out of voice by the time of the dungeon scene. Hoarseness seemed to be the problem; perhaps, like Franco Corelli, he should conceal glasses of water around the set. His canteen in Act IV seemed not to have been filled, and he needed it. He looked a romantic enough figure whenever he did not stand in profile.

Patricia Racette’s Leonora is not the loopy teenager jumping around the set played by Sondra Radvanovsky in this production: Leonora may be a teenager, but she’s a lady of high Spanish birth, and she knows it; Racette knows it, too. Spanish grandezza used to mean something, and Verdi’s Leonora is that sort of dignified character.

Racette is such an intelligent singer, so persuasive in her understanding of predicament, that I wish I liked her voice better. Her instrument always seems too small for the Met. She manages very professionally, but the voluptuous floods of sound that other sopranos have brought to the role, the voice that seems to define Leonora’s desperate heart and new-awakened passions, are not at Racette’s disposal. Her “Tacea la notte” was fascinating as vocal storytelling, but the tidal rise at its conclusion did not overflow. “Di tale amor” was, as it usually is, a bit of a mess, drawing no applause—Sutherland is the only soprano I ever heard sing it flawlessly, and the rest of her performance was inert. (“Di tale amor” is one of the few cases where I’d like to take his Orsinitá the composer aside and say, sternly, “Maestro, this tune isn’t good enough; go write a new one.”) The convent scene was no celestial flight, and Racette seemed out of breath in much of Act IV; there were many thin notes and others not precisely where one wanted them. Racette coped with the part but she did not take joy in it, or exploit its opportunities.

Marianne Cornetti has the heft for Azucena, but it takes her an awfully long time to warm up. Her “Stride le vampe” was loud but pitchless. Only at the end of the “Condotta” did she give evidence of the ferocity of a maddened Gypsy—her final notes actually brought forth the first responsive “echo” I’ve ever heard at the Met! The dungeon serenade, however, gave Cornetti place for her most beautiful singing of the night.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk, as Ferrando, has a clear, persuasive young bass but he bleats a bit. Renée Tatum was not the first confidante in my experience to make us all wish Inez had more to sing. The monks’ offstage “Miserere” in Act IV was downright heavenly, evidence of what those guys can accomplish when they’re not swashbuckling around shirtless, fighting with knives and spitting in each other’s faces, as they were obliged to do at other times.

The acting from all hands gave evidence of a bent towards melodrama. This is not out of place in Trovatore, of all operas, but many were the moments (“Ah sì, ben mio,” for example) when I felt the singers would give Verdi his due and us a better time if they’d stand and deliver in the old-fashioned way, instead of emoting like antsy banshees, losing their breath and tripping over their own feet.

The omission of nearly all cabaletta repeats implied a desire not so much to energize the occasion as to get it over with. That’s no way to do Trovatore; Trovatore must breathe. Oxygen keeps the embers hotter.

Intermezzo at the City Opera

Pace Tolstoy, happy marriages are not all alike, but they require a lot of work. I am not referring to the hectic happy marriage of Richard and Pauline Strauss, the model on which Strauss constructed Intermezzo, his portrait of the composer at home with the non-stop assault of his termagant wife accusing and blaming and admitting she’d find it dull to live with someone who didn’t fight back. I’m referring to the supremely happy marriage of artist and role (which, like any happy marriage, calls for luck and hard work) now on offer at the New York City Opera, where Mary Dunleavy has taken on the shrewish coloratura flights and turn-on-a-dime changes of mood that are Christine Storch.

Dunleavy’s honeyed voice resembles that of Renee Fleming before that grande dame became so affected and spoiled. I first heard Dunleavy’s sturdy lyric soprano as that roughest of dramatic coloratura workouts, Konstanze in Mozart’s Seraglio, and a woman who can handle Konstanze with credit can probably wrestle tigers. More recently she has been an admired Violetta (which I did not see). I wouldn’t have thought of Christine as a Dunleavy vehicle, perhaps because the part was created for the more opulent vocal charms of Lotte Lehmann, perhaps because the last time the City Opera presented it, the role was taken by Lauren Flanigan. Flanigan’s lyric skills were severely tested by the Strauss orchestra but her voice has a dangerous edge to it that made her an exciting Christine.

Dunleavy lacks that edge, but her girlish qualities are stronger than they seem (as was probably also true of Pauline Strauss, for whom her husband wrote so many of his loveliest songs), and she has no problem riding the full blast of a lush orchestra. At moments of stress, a metallic sheen (very Strauss, very Jugendstil, like the gold slathered on a Klimt portrait) gleams through the instrumental texture, which argues not merely ability but craft: Dunleavy knows just how to slice through a heavy orchestra without putting herself under undue strain. Nor did it hurt that, with her marcelled hair and suave twenties costumes, her pert, imperious manner recalled the slangy heroines played by Myrna Loy and Jean Arthur. Add to this a balletic figure and a charm that almost persuades you Christine would be endurable, and you have the finest achievement of a singing actress on New York’s opera stages this fall.

Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s conversational operas—the Prologue to Ariadne and Die Schweigsame Frau are similar—in that, though the score is full of melody, the voice seldom flows into easy, relaxing song. This is a major reason for the opera’s rarity in non-German-speaking lands, but with Dunleavy’s lyricism joining the fragments of sprechstimme and endearment and tirade, I felt as I do with a good Handel or Verdi recitativo accompagnato, that this was more interesting, more full of character, than song would be. Strauss uses the same richly symphonic language for the mythic and grandiose (in operas like Die Frau ohne Schatten and the “operatic” portions of Ariadne auf Naxos) as he does for the day-to-day domesticity of the “Sinfonia Domestica” and Intermezzo. Perhaps he saw no difference between the mythic and day-to-day family discord. Today, with a flood of new operas loosed upon the world dealing with messy everyday lives, neglecting antique myth or historical pageant, perhaps Intermezzo will prove to have been a harbinger of a change in operatic style, just as Strauss’s Elektra was a harbinger of new musical looks at classical Greece.

The other triumph, musically speaking, was the lush Strauss score as led by George Manahan, which swept the evening’s welter of events along like the ice skater’s waltz mimed (on in-line skates) in one of Intermezzo’s many locales without drowning the singers. Vocally, the entire cast seemed well chosen and on their toes, as Pauline Strauss (a terror to her housemaids) would no doubt have imperiously insisted. Nicholas Pallesen sang the not quite credible saintly Robert Storch—Strauss’s self-portrait—with suave dignity, though some stretching for high notes implied that he might not have handled a full-sized leading role so easily. Andrew Bidlack as the young parasitical baron that snobby Christine unwarily picks up showed a fine, easy lyric tenor one hopes to hear more of. Jessica Klein was a pleasure as the most put-upon of the maids. A debutante named Tharanga Goonetilleke gave the three lines of the Baron’s girlfriend a deep, sexy contralto throb that made everyone’s ears open wider.

The handsome, stage-smart production was by Leon Major. Andrew Jackness’s sets and Martha Mann’s costumes looked handsome and in period (which is early, respectable Weimar) without evidently straining the budget.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Joan Sutherland: A Silver Voice, a Gold Voice, a Blue Voice (part 2)

All right enough about her mediocre stage sense. Let’s talk about the Voice. It was a cool instrument – another nickname she earned on her Italian debut (La Stupenda is the one everybody’s heard) was “La Callas fredda” – cold Callas.

On my personal vocal color scale, which runs from a voluptuous red (Tebaldi) or blood-orange (Leontyne Price) or purple (Caballé) or red-purple (Troyanos) to white-hot (Rysanek) or runny yellow-green (Sills), Sutherland is among the “blue” sopranos – which has nothing to do with “blues” in the pop sense of the term. (Ella Fitzgerald had a blue voice, but Billie Holiday had a blues voice, which is very different.) Diana Damrau is blue. Mirella Freni is blue-ish. Karita Mattila is ice blue. Regine Crespin was deep blue shading to violet. Sutherland was true blue (like the Garter ribbon). There is a coolness here that can take on the passion in the music but does not inject passion where the music lacks it, could possibly use it.

There were two or three Sutherland voices with the passing of time. I call these the Silver voice and the Golden voice and (after 1981) the droopy voice. When Sutherland made her first recordings in the late fifties and early sixties (Emilia di Liverpool, the first recital (with her perfect “O luce di quest’ anima”), the first All right enough about her mediocre stage sense. Let’s talk about the voice. It was a cool instrument – another nickname she earned on her Italian debut (La Stupenda is the one everybody’s heard) was “La Callas fredda” – cold Callas. On my personal color scale, which runs from a voluptuous red (Tebaldi) or blood-orange (Leontyne Price) or purple (Caballé) or red-purple (Troyanos) to white-hot (Rysanek) or runny yellow-green (Sills), Sutherland is among the “blue” sopranos – which has nothing to do with “blues” in the pop sense of the term. (Ella Fitzgerald had a blue voice, but Billie Holiday had a blues voice, which is very different.) Diana Damrau is blue. Mirella Freni is blue-ish. Karita Mattila is ice blue. Regine Crespin was deep blue shading to violet. Sutherland was true blue (like the Garter ribbon). There is a coolness here that can take on the passion in the music but does not inject passion where the music lacks it, could possibly use it.

There were two or three Sutherland voices with the passing of time. I call these the Silver voice and the Golden voice and (after 1981) the droopy voice. When Sutherland made her first recordings in the late fifties and early sixties (Emilia di Liverpool, the first recital (with her perfect “O luce di quest’ anima”), the first Lucia and Rigoletto, The Art of the Prima Donna, her voice sounded smaller than it was, bell-like as the canary sopranos of old but truer because more firmly grounded in dramatic soprano technique. (Callas, too, learned her amazing flexibility after dramatic training, and it shows in the guts she could bring to Anna Bolena or Il Pirata. Ditto Caballé, who like the other two ladies thought she was destined for dramatic soprano-dom.) Well, fluttery has its place (Zerbinetta, Philine, Olympia), but I like to feel, to hear, that the glorious façade rests on sturdy foundations.

The silver voice, the airy flights, the easy passagework faded after a vocal crisis around 1962. By 1963, when she recorded her first Norma and Traviata, and 1964, when she recorded Command Performance and Alcina, the silver voice was gone forever. In its place was what I call her Golden voice: molten honey caressing the line. She could still do ornaments to make anyone gasp (the first Puritani and Semiramide), but the flavor is different. It is a tribute to her skill (and Bonynge’s coaching) that so little was lost, that her ability to race through the notes was so little affected. But she had to re-learn everything in her repertory, and while it sounded good, even great, it did not sound the same. She could no longer be a girl – she was always a woman.

An old obnoxious opera friend, Stan Cohen, the sort who disparage almost everything and insult you for daring to have a differing opinion, used to say, “You should have heard Sutherland in the sixties! The chances she took! The perfection!” Happily, pirates of those Puritanis and Semiramides and Donna Annas do survive. Security was important to her, and she never took a high note and didn’t make it (if she didn’t think she had it, she’d transpose it). Her days of triumph were incredible. The story goes that after she first sang Norma in the U.S., in Philadelphia, Monsterrat Caballé came backstage to rave about the performance. Joan said, “Ah, but after you sing it, they won’t come to hear me sing it.” Caballé, flabbergasted (and she’s no blushing violet), replied, without thinking, “Oh I could never sing it. I don’t have the high notes.” “You don’t need them!” laughed Joan. “They’re not in the score!” Indeed, she was the first soprano ever to sing “Casta diva” in the original key, Bellini having lowered it for Giuditta Pasta before the premiere.

Such chances indeed: In Traviata, she used to toss off the elaborate Tetrazzini variation to the end of “Sempre libera,” which is not exactly true to the dramatic situation (Violetta is hysterical, yes, but also emotionally exhausted) but sure is an impressive bit of vocalism. She didn’t make a big thing out of it; she just sang it for sheer fun, to give us a memorable thrill.

I heard Sutherland’s Norma at the Met in 1970, twice in the spring and twice in the fall, with Horne three times, Cossotto once. She did it in four acts rather than two, and the production was as ugly as most Norma productions tend to be. The fourth Norma was a surprise, an event. We settled in for the prelims and the Druids’ march (has it ever been more rumpty-tum than in Bonynge’s hands? But nothing can save that silly march) and then Joan singing another perfect “Casta diva,” oh ho-hum. In fact, since that day, I have heard it sung perfectly by only two other sopranos, Montserrat Caballé and Ann Donaldson. Sutherland and Caballé made Norma seem so easy (after Callas had made it seem so career-defining and ultimate) that, losing their traditional wary respect for the role, all sorts of ladies with no business doing so attempted Norma and faced varying levels of opprobrium for it: Rita Hunter, Renata Scotto, Shirley Verrett, Jane Eaglen, even Sills. But only dimly did I guess back then how lucky I was. (Callas fans were livid. A lapel button frequent at the Met: “Sutherland is Clotilda” – the confidante role Sutherland had sung to Callas years before.)

And then, that fourth “Casta diva,” came a surprise: As she rose to that first D in alt (ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, AH) – she blew the note. Shock rippled through the house. Sutherland blew a note! This had never happened. Every other singer, sure. Don’t stop the presses. Some of them made whole careers out of it. But not Sutherland!

What it felt like was someone climbing a flagpole, only to find the ball at the top has been greased. She went for it – and over the top and down the other side. Except she pulled herself up short and tried again – and went back over the other side, wobbling about, trying to find the secure seat – at the top of a greased flagpole. No one would be surprised if a singer panicked at this point, but Sutherland was all pro, no panic. She held herself steady in that precarious position. And a strange thing happened in the orchestra, where we assumed Bonynge could do nothing but beat time: He did have control, and he exercised it now, and the orchestra abruptly were playing twice as slowly as before – as if reaching out a steadying arm to guide the soprano down the flow of arpeggios to the end of the verse. And this was just the first verse.

Let us imagine her feelings at this point: The voice is not in perfect control and another verse of “Casta diva” must be sung, and every one of the four thousand people present is at seat’s edge and wide awake, not believing what they were hearing, aghast to hear more. You could have heard a pin drop or a bracelet rattle – but no pins dropped and no bracelets rattled in all the house.

And, a little bit slower, a little bit more carefully, she sang the second verse and, as the chorus joined in, ascended the mountain of fioritura to the climactic D. And sang the most flawless verse of “Casta diva” that has ever been sung – since Ponselle anyway – maybe since Malibran (who transposed it). It was a perfect feat of singing, each note a rounded outsize pearl the same size and texture as each other note, the evenness that was the bel canto singer’s ideal in each phrase – to the swift descending chromatic scale without a note smudged that concludes the hymn. Bid set, made and won. If it had been anyone but Joan, you’d almost suspect her of doing it on purpose just to get us to pay closer attention, but she never went in for that kind of swank. (Of Scotto, I’d believe it.) And only complete coolth, complete professionalism could have brought it off.

Bonynge usually tried to suppress applause after arias and hurry on to present the succeeding cabaletta as part of a unity, but that night he laid down his baton and sat back while we roared for quite some time. Only then did Joan, clearly feeling her oats, throw herself into two ornamented verses of the delicious cabaletta. Not exactly introspective on this occasion, but who cared? It was an occasion. We were thrilled to be there.

And we suddenly realized why she insisted on having her husband in the pit: She was scared. She had made a lot of recordings, her fans knew them well. She was beginning to be unsure she could compete with studio perfection. She needed all the support she could get. It is a problem faced by every recorded artist. We used to mutter that Ricky selfishly insisted he be part of her contract package, but I don’t believe this was true: A letter in the Met Archives from the management – evidently of my mind – asked Bonynge if he’d mind his wife singing a performance with another conductor on a date when he was obliged to be out of town. He replied that he’d no objection at all, but he didn’t think she’d do it.

Act II of that famous Norma, by the way, ended with one of those interpolated high notes Sutherland placed in the score, ending (in this case) the tremendously exciting trio Bellini had composed. (Angela Meade sang it in her Caramoor Normas last summer.) I was seated in the top row of the Family Circle, a fathom and a furlong from the stage. The kid next to me shocked me by attending the opera in a see-through shirt (or maybe I just envied him his skinny torso). When that note, solid on its flawless breath control came out at us, building and building and building and then at the peak of our endurance (we were all holding our breaths), abruptly descended to the tonic to end the act, the chest of the kid in the see-through shirt expanded until it nearly burst through, he seemed to be having some sort of seizure, and only when Joan let her breath out did he collapse, spent (in some way or other), into a huddle in his seat. I forgave so responsive a music-lover his bêtise of dress.

The mid-seventies were a difficult time for New York opera-goers. Eternal verities were challenged. Rudolf Bing may have been idiosyncratically out of date (he adored obscure Verdi, but he never took bel canto seriously), but at least he had been in charge. After he left, in 1972, for a dozen years no one seemed to be in charge. Deals were done and undone and many chances missed. Sutherland brought her Fille du Regiment from Covent Garden to the Met with the Pav (and, later, Alfredo Kraus), and it was a triumph – she loved to cut up on stage – and then a gorgeous Puritani in 1976 with a starry cast, the Pav, Milnes and James Morris, to back her up. Puritani is a long night for the soprano; at the prima she looked frankly exhausted; by the last one, she was having fun and tossing the roses that had been thrown to her back among the audience (after giving one to Pav and one to Ricky to be sure). Then there was the Hoffman in (yet another) new edition, where her Olympia had big painted pink roses on her cheeks, her Giulietta descended from the top of the stage to the bottom in a suspended gondola against a watery backdrop, and her expiring Antonia was loud enough to wake a sanitarium.

Then, for some reason, she quarreled with the powers running the Met. They asked her to sing Konstanze in Mozart’s Seraglio, and though Mozart was not a great composer for her (though her Donna Anna on record – made in her Silver era, and under Giulini’s careful control – is superb) she assented, on condition that the Met do her a favor and give her The Merry Widow. She had the production already; they’d only have to rent it. It may or may not have been a mistaken idea, but the operetta works in the Met, as Frederica von Stade and Placido Domingo proved some years later. The Met was unwilling to trust her. I’m not sure what the third opera in this package was to have been – perhaps Luisa Miller or Ernani, but I was hoping for Semiramide or Les Huguenots or Lucrezia Borgia – but instead three or four years passed with no Sutherland at all, and this was the more to be regretted because she went through another vocal crisis around 1980. Another soprano of equal success might have retired at this point, but for whatever reasons – she was used to acclaim, a hard taste to renounce – she went on. And it wasn’t the same. There were roles she should not have sung, second recordings that did not match the first ones, a few trainwrecks.

Opera lovers who began to attend in the eighties and were only going by what they heard (as is natural) scowled at Sutherland. She was so unconvincing an actress – a thing that had always been important but was becoming more so in a televised generation. Callas, lately dead, was now deified, and if Sutherland surpassed her in vocal gift, she never pretended to match her in dramatic instinct. She had worshipped Callas, but she never imitated her – and she was right not to try.

Over the years, I heard Sutherland in several concerts and galas and in fourteen complete operas: the Haydn Orfeo, Bellini’s Sonnambula, Norma and Puritani (no one but Joan ever got new productions of all three out of the Met), Donizetti’s Lucia, Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, Massenet’s Esclarmonde, Delibes’s Lakmé, Mozart’s Don Giovanni – alas, not the run with Solti conducting in the late sixties but a decidedly inferior group under Bonynge ten years later – Verdi’s Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata, and the four heroines in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.

The later performances were not up to standard: Anna Bolena, Lucia, Leonora, Elvira. She had become, as many of the younger fans sneered, “Moany Joanie.” Her pitch tended to sag below the note, although she could usually rise to a brilliant top. I thought the old mezzo training was coming through nicely, and that with retraining and study of a new repertory, she might have a new career. Her lower register was a cello register, Stradivarius-hued. What an Erda or Favorite she might have been! But why should she bother? She was nearing sixty, she was rich, she had a title, she was the living symbol of Australian never-say-die athleticism in her art.

When Tito Capobianco ran Opera San Diego, made a point one year of hiring Sutherland to sing Rosalinda in Fledermaus when he had already persuaded the soon-to-retire Beverly Sills to sing Adele. The ladies, whose fans were at daggers drawn, had never met, and became great friends instantly. (Sutherland used to sing the Czardas in Hungarian, the rest in English, not that anyone could tell the difference.)

A year or two later, when Sills was director of the City Opera, I ran into them strolling, regally tall, arm in arm, through the promenade of the State Theater. The occasion was the City Opera’s first Alcina, the Handel opera first unearthed for Sutherland. The star was Carol Vaness – and if she was nervous in Sutherland’s presence, she gave no sign of it in a magical performance. Sutherland sat prominently in the first seat in the First Tier, applauding everything heartily – but getting an ovation herself at the beginning of Act III. Her recording of the opera (with a breathtaking supporting cast: Berganza, Freni, Sciutti, Alva, Flagello) seems very old-fashioned today, when we have all learned a great deal more about baroque opera, but the rhythms are sprightly and the vocalism sensational. It is an adorable document.

I kick myself for missing some of Joan’s mid-career performances I could have attended – she’d given up Handel (those original Alcinas must have been astonishing), but I could have seen her in Beatrice di Tenda and Lucrezia Borgia (her video recording of this last, though late, is quite fine) and, most tragically of all, Semiramide, which she sang with Horne at the Lyric Opera of Chicago when I, who had never been west of Pennsylvania, was too young penniless and scared to risk a trip to so big and bad a city. I had also missed, by a year or so, her concert Semiramide at Carnegie Hall. I’m told she wore a gown of red sequins, shimmering regally, with a white cashmere shawl over her shoulders and bosom in the opening scene. She returned in this getup in the second scene, and as the prelude of her aria, “Bel raggio lusinghier” (“A bright ray of sunshine illuminates my heart”), was played, she let the shawl fall away – revealing that the front of her sequined gown was a glittering sunburst, perfectly synchronized with the text and the explosive showpiece she was about to sing. Let no one doubt she was a diva of the highest order.

I hope her copies of those awful sonnets never turn up.

Joan Sutherland: My Starter Diva (part 1)

Sutherland was my Starter Diva.

I was sixteen and knew nothing about opera, had just seen my first Traviata at the City Opera (Patricia Brooks, Placido Domingo), was entranced by the melodies – especially the Brindisi and “Sempre libera” – and wanted more. It is typical of my relationship to the zeitgeist that just as the world succumbed to the joys of the steady back beat, I fell completely in love with voluptuous melody.

I had long loved the tunes of Arthur Sullivan (whose mother was Italian), but bel canto promised a far richer trove. I went to E.J. Korvette’s (remember Korvette’s?) and looked for some likely-looking Verdi. A display offered three new compilation disks (tracks snipped from earlier recordings): Bellini, Handel, Verdi, arias sung by a lady waltzing grandly across the front cover in great swirling swaths of black tulle. I’d never heard of Bellini, associated Handel with chorales. Verdi was the man. The lady’s name was Joan Sutherland. “She’s good; my parents like her,” said my best friend, who was advising me.

Oh, was she good! Oh were the melodies sumptuous (“Ernani, involami”; “Santo di patria”; “Caro nome”; the Bolero from Vespri), and the voice every bit the same, clear as spring water, soaring up and down the scales by clear steps, fast or slow as you like, each tone ravishing, the trills so precise you could distinguish two separate notes, the runs sung just as they were written, the high E-flats in alt brilliant but never shrill. And since it was all in a language I didn’t know, the diction seemed just dandy to me.

Sutherland was the ideal Starter Diva because so much of what she did was technique, on the surface. Once you knew the repertory, you might long for more pathos in a Desdemona, more fire in a raging Luisa Miller, more brooding in a Violetta … but if you were after flawless sound, flawless technique, she was it. I urge tyros not to start with Callas, because the voice’s flaws will irritate you and until you understand the repertory, you won’t understand what she’s doing. Callas did a lot, but much of it was subtle. Sutherland could be subtle, but technically, not dramatically.

I became obsessed as only an adolescent desperate to stave off the sex urge (I knew it was going to be trouble) can be. I bought all her recordings and thirsted for more. The melodies of Alcina and Lucia and Puritani still carry me back to those dizzy, fantastic days; when music was so much more real to me than academics or personal relationships or anything else in my life. In dull high school classes (which was nearly all of them), I would keep myself awake by writing sonnets to Joan. Some of them were acrostics, spelling out her name. All of them were terrible (though when I sent them to her, she charmingly overlooked that fact).

I read her biography, the first one, which made her out to be an unpretentious, unsophisticated, hardworking Australian girl, guided by a clever Svengali husband and a bunch of tough teachers to display her exceptional gifts, fend off terrible health problems, and renew repertory long thought dead. The story was like a Hollywood film, far too good to be true. Later biographies and unauthorized rumors presented a different woman: down to earth, yes, but determined to get to the top if talent and hard work could take her there, very conscious of just who she was and how important to opera, the recording industry and Australia’s self-image, loving a laugh but with no sympathy for the lazy. Ambition and hard work and a firm set of the chin makes more sense than the modest maiden pushed to the forefront. She knew she was remarkable. She knew she wasn’t Lily Pons or Callas, but she was Joan Sutherland. (It is absurd to ask, as mediocre reporters always do, Who is the new Callas? The new Pavarotti? The new Sutherland? The new Horne? The great artists are always unique – therefore, catch them while you can.)

But let’s go back to my first exposure to the Sutherland instrument live and in person. I had written another sonnet and brought a dozen roses. And four albums for signature. But would I have the nerve to go backstage with them? The place: Carnegie Hall, the occasion American Opera Society’s presentation of Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice (aka L’anima del filosofo), with Nicolai Gedda as Orfeo, and Sutherland increasing her exposure by copping the bravura aria of a Spirit in Act II. Like Marcel on first seeing the actress Berma, I found it difficult to reconcile my anticipations with the superb but somehow alien occasion. The music was very odd: a chorus of Maenads tore Orfeo to pieces (following the myth, as Gluck does not), but they were Haydn Maenads – imagine a maddened horde of Dresden china shepherdesses. And yes, I got up the nerve to go backstage where I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

A year later, at the Met, in more comprehensible circumstances, a pair of Sonnambulas back to back – but I was not ready to understand Bellini, though many authorities (including her husband) think the simple, naïve Amina is Sutherland’s best characterization. There was a song recital in Newark, with “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” and “Home, Sweet Home” among the encores – the latter drew titters from the hall. Sutherland might really have been happier as a Victorian grande dame, invited to Windsor for the occasional recital.

There was an all-Handel concert at Hunter. In the second half, she came out to sing “Ombre pallide” from Alcina and couldn’t locate the music on the stand. Bonynge and the orchestra waited patiently. She turned the pages left, she turned them right. Nervous giggling began among the crowd. The usually bland face was suddenly expressive to a degree, deepening worry, maintaining cool, Aussie housewife “now where did I leave that casserole?” And suddenly, like sun breaking through clouds, relief burst out upon her features and we broke into laughter and applause. She was very communicative – just not in the artificial arena of the theater.

Backstage after that concert (I’d brought a new sonnet and four more albums to be signed – I thought it rude to bring more than four) someone had a recording of Haydn’s Orfeo for her signature. “Oooh, you pirates!” she cried, shaking a finger. But she signed.

A word on her acting: No, she was not a stage animal. As her biographies make clear, she had to force herself to learn to do all that stuff, and she needed careful coaching. Once she had the thing down, though, she had it down – she could do it walking in her sleep – and I mean Lucia or Traviata, not just Amina. But if anything went wrong, she had no idea how to fix it. Either you are the sort who is comfortable on the stage and can ad lib with no trouble, or you are not. It can’t be learned. Sills could improvise, live the role. Sutherland could not. Too, I don’t think her earthy sense of self could quite get the hang of being the loveliest princess in the world, her face dazzling tenors into transports and baritones into skullduggery. She was happier in comedies, making fun of herself, as in La Fille du Regiment – a very Australian trait.

Many’s the time I’ve seen her do something, and thought, “Whatever you do up there, don’t do that!” only to have her – do just that.

There was the Esclarmonde where the director and designer had set her up (she didn’t even have to sing, just stand there) as a Byzantine icon, worshipped by the chorus and Massenet’s incense-like music. But she had to remain veiled (because if a man saw her, she’d lose her magical powers – you know, opera as usual), and the veil was somehow awry. So what? But she couldn’t stop fiddling with the veil. We were all staring (the staging led all our eyes) at her supposedly immobile, dignified, iconic figure, and she couldn’t stop finicking with the goddam veil. All she had to do was not do anything at all. But this did not occur to her.

There was the Trovatore in San Francisco – her first essay at that role, which was not one of her great ones. She had her costumier run up her own costumes, as usual, distrusting house designers. (“What’s wrong with our costume?” wailed a Met flak once. “It’s cheap and vulgar,” said Joan. “Vulgar perhaps, but cheap never!” he replied.) Joan’s costumier apparently thought Trovatore was set in the eighteenth century; in fact, it’s the early fifteenth, and the rest of the costumes reflected this. Too, they were all in blues or browns or a touch of orange. But not Joan: she was in a huge pink farthingale. She did add tremendously to the realism of the second performance (I thought) by remembering to unlock Manrico’s prison before throwing the door wide open. But that was not the moment I best remember from that rather dreary Trovatore. The big moment of shudder that night came during Pavarotti’s “Ah si, ben mio.” The director had him to one side, facing outwards, with Sutherland’s back to us, listening to his every ardent syllable. And she did that. But as she turned towards him, she trod on her long pink underskirt. It was going to be tough to move out of that awkward position, so, imagining that our attention was focused entirely on Luciano’s golden phrases, she took advantage of the quiet to kick the skirt out from under her dress – unaware that, in that lighting and against that brown background, her pink bustled bum was the most eye-catching object in the house, and her every gesture in it was being shoved into our faces.

Then there was her Lakmé in Philadelphia. Joan, playing the lovely daughter of the bloodthirsty Hindu high priest but got up to resemble the Rock of Gibraltar as, I assume, a tribute to the majesty of the British Empire, sang the piss out of the Bell Song and was rewarded with minute after minute of hysteria. On and on it went, longer than the aria. And she was on her knees, and no doubt they were unhappy. At last she looked at us and broke tableau with a gesture: “Oh calm it down, girls,” she might almost have been saying. “It’s just me, you know, and I’m not going to sing it again.” We laughed. She was a pal. It was her moment. Victoria de los Angeles, observing Sutherland on TV, once remarked, “You just look at her and you know she would be such a chum.”

And then there was her final Lucia at the Met – the one captured on video. This is unfortunate, as there was (at nearly sixty) a marked falling off. She lowered the Mad Scene a step, for one thing. For another, where in earlier years (I first saw her sing it in 1970 and 1971), she had run the hundred-yard dash in and out all over the stage, all while tossing off flawless runs and leaps and trills and variations, in 1985 (was it?) she could only manage about twenty yards of dash. I was in standing room for the first two acts, but as the curtain came down on the sextet (remember when they did the sextet properly, with no stupid photographer to mess it up?), a young couple with, no doubt, suburban trains to catch leaped up from seats in Row B on the aisle and raced to the exit. I got there first, and they gave me their tickets. So there I sat for the Mad Scene with my friend Maaike beside me, marveling at how well Joan acted as well as sang a part she had performed over three hundred times at that point.

Then came the moment. She was staring at us, eyes demented, prepared to sweep down and roulade us to death. And her shawl slipped from her shoulders. Out of character, she looked down, hoisted it to one shoulder, then to the other, then back to look at us, ready to sing, in character – demented. Maaike muttered, “Oh God.” Indeed, theatrical tension has seldom been so entirely dispelled.

I said to Maaike later, “You don’t understand. This is what proves Sutherland is a major actress! If Callas or Sills had dropped the shawl, they’d have let the shawl go hang, and we’d never have seen them kick it away. But Sutherland instinctively realizes that to a really madwoman, dropping your shawl is just as significant as stabbing your groom 29 times on the wedding night. They are equally momentous in her eyes! Sutherland has equated them. She has made Lucia real!” No, I didn’t believe that, but I was very proud of concocting it and have used the story many times as an example of how a true opera devotee will defend his diva against all probability and all sanity.

Perhaps the most impressive feat I’ve ever seen on any stage also involved Sutherland. She sang four Rigolettos at the Met in June, 1972; I got to two of them. Ruggiero Raimondi as Sparafucile awed me then and forever by carrying a sack on his shoulder, a sack containing Joan and while singing lowered it gently to the stage it so that Sherill Milnes (not even trying to lift it) could haul it down front, kick it a few times, and out popped Joan, trilling away. At the later performance, Ivo Vinco sang Sparafucile. He had an attendant ruffian with him to carry the sack.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ross Macdonald had a firm ... ouch, scream, eeyii-oh!

"Mister, I seen 'em hard-boiled before - but you're - twenty minutes!" - Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole.

The word I always use for my favorite author of hard-boiled detective fiction, Ross Macdonald (ne Kenneth Millar), is "Wagnerian." Lew Archer (there is no one in Wagner like Archer, but how Wagner would have enjoyed it if there had been!) is always hired to solve some minor crime (a little swindle, an oil spill, a little murder, the theft of some letters), and he always turns up a long-lost ancient forgotten unsolved crime or faked identity or something else everyone kind of wishes he wouldn't bring up. It can go back twenty years. Thirty. And once he's on the case, he can't be stopped. You'd think someone would figure that out and shoot him early on. But they can't. He's narrating. And (unlike real life) it all ties together in the end.

Exploring the Gulag (my storage space on Vandam Street), because it simply must be emptied so I can put things there so I can live in an habitable apartment (song cue: Stephen Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?"), I came across a trove of Ross Macdonald mysteries. Macdonald is my favorite, preferred even to his partners-in-hardboiled-California-tec-dom, Hammett and Chandler, and to his splendid wife, Margaret Millar.

Of all mystery writers (not that I've read that many), my favorites are Sayers (great writing, though her murders are usually improbable at best), Edmund Crispin (splendidly roundabout and elegant), Sarah Caudwell (a lawyer and a witch and a lesbian to boot!), and Tony Hillerman. What - aside from excellent style - did they have in common? They created characters and societies. I'm intrigued by their alternate worlds. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, never created a believable character or a credible plot. And she's a terrible writer. Simenon I can't get into. I shall continue to try. Mickey Spillane - another terrible writer with unbelievable characters and the same repetitive plot. (Macdonald's plot also repeats, deriving from his own brutal childhood as he admitted, but he makes it seem less variations on a theme than a universal set of truths.) John Le Carre is a very good writer, and I like him when he's brief - but he's seldom brief.

I had just loaned (I think it was a loan; he may not agree) four of my favorite Macdonalds to a friend in Boston: The Chill, The Blue Hammer, The Goodbye Look, The Wycherly Woman. Hope I get them back eventually. But I only reread them about once a decade, which keeps the effect fresh. Often I'm halfway through a reread before I remember who done it. And among the trove, besides several whose plot I had forgotten (or was thrilled to revisit) was one I had not read before! I savored the opening sentence - did I know it? No. I savored the typical lurch into the case before someone hired Archer, never realizing he was going to search deeper than the hirer wanted. Not familiar. I savored the characters: typical. And Archer's seduction of each to get the info he wanted. The roundabout plot. The lost identity.

(It's her SISTER! I wanted to scream at him. We've been told she has a sister. If the girl isn't acting like the blackmailing slut you know she is, it's not your instinct that's wrong - it's your i.d. This is her SISTER! Archer figured it out, but only a day later. Never mind. My favorite Sayers is The Nine Tailors, and I figured out who the corpse was, and who had killed him, chapters before Lord Peter ever did. Even the emeralds were no surprise to me.)

It occurred to me I didn't even know which was the first Lew Archer novel. (It's The Moving Target, not one of the strongest, poorly filmed as Harper with giggly Paul Newman mis-playing melancholic Lew.) So I found a web site with ALL of Macdonald listed on it, in chronological order so I can deduce several trends as they rise and fall, and can pass along my recommendations to you. I have omitted most of the early and non-Archer ones, as I do not find them as enjoyable and often have not finished them. He took a couple of years to find his style, did our Ken (Ross), and this is no surprise. Even Mozart nodded, and his early works, extraordinary for a child, are nothing brilliant compared to any adult.

* The Moving Target (1949) - I will now reread this to see how Archer began his illustrious career.

* The Drowning Pool (1950) - One of the weakest of the series, inexplicably popular.

* The Way Some People Die (1951) - Some women just can't help driving men mad. Y'know? Lew is not yet forty and hates gangsters. (VERY GOOD)

* The Ivory Grin (1952) - Good appearance of the corpus delecti. Though I knew what it was long before Lew did. (VERY GOOD)

* Find a Victim (1954) - Unforgettable opening sentence. Femmes fatales, oversexed and undersexed, and the way a career in law enforcement eats the soul. The family romance in full Wagnerian throttle. (GOOD)

* The Barbarous Coast (1956) - I lost it at the movies. (GOOD)

* The Doomsters (1958) - I don't remember this one.

* The Galton Case (1959) - Famously the most autobiographical, the one where he stopped fending off the impulse to make fiction of his own story, it also has the wildest switcheroo plot, wherein nor Lew nor reader knows what to believe. (Neither do most of the other characters.) (TOP RATING)

* The Ferguson Affair (1960) - This is not a Lew Archer novel, but his replacement is very much up to the mark. Terrific plot. Mistaken identities proliferate. Old ghosts return to haunt. Hollywood is corrupt and so is money. (TOP RATING)

* The Wycherly Woman (1961) - More mistaken identities. I wasn't taken in, but I enjoyed Lew's ride. (VERY GOOD)

* The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) - Hippies are making Lew - and Ross - nervous. (GOOD)

* The Chill (1964) - Won all the prizes, wildest, most Wagnerian plot of all, what's a little incest as long as it's kept in the family? (TOP RATING)

* The Far Side of the Dollar (1965) - I forget this one, too, but will reread it.

* Black Money (1966) - Rather short, as though Ross (and Lew) were going through the motions. But a rather intriguing denouement all the same. (GOOD)

* The Instant Enemy (1968) - Another one I can't remember.

* The Goodbye Look (1969) - Terrific. Even remembering the details, I found I couldn't remember all the details. And when Archer, in a hospital bed, pretends to be asleep so the housekeeper who denied ever seeing the photograph before can sneak in and reclaim it joyously ... welcome to Archer-land. (TOP RATING)
This is also - I think - the first book in which he actually goes to bed with one of the attractive women who are always throwing themselves at him. Such is the zeitgeist of 1969, eh?

* The Underground Man (1971) - Another I've forgotten. Looking forward to it!

* Sleeping Beauty (1973) - This brings in another of Ken Millar's causes, conservation: An oil spill or two are at the bottom of the mystery. You're very tense as Lew races around California searching for - and just missing - the angry young woman he met in chapter one. Will she live long enough for him to save her? She didn't in a previous volume or two. Meanwhile, a little adultery never hurt any private eye we ever knew. (TOP RATING)

* The Blue Hammer (1976) - The last, and the man is still at the top of his game. Amazing how murdering one's half-brother can transform a painter's style ... or did it? And amazing how time can transform the painter's model. Wild and maelstromic plot. (TOP RATING)

They've reissued a lot of these, some of the best (The Chill) and some of the worst (The Drowning Pool). I can't guess the logic of it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Venus in Fur addendum ...

Has it ever occured to anyone - it might have, it has only just occurred to me - that the idea for One Touch of Venus, the Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash extravaganza starring Mary Martin (Ava Gardner in Hollywood), the story of a young man who kisses an ancient statue of the goddess Aphrodite, whereupon she comes to life and wreaks happy havoc on New York - the show that gave us "Speak Low," the most sensuous of all Broadway theater songs - came to someone (Moss Hart? someone like that) who had been reading Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Furs, the foundation document (with de Sade's Justine) of Sado-Masochism, in which the protagonist is violently aroused by a statue of that goddess on the grounds of a sanitarium in eastern Austria-Hungary and then meets, as it were, the goddess's living incarnation?

This came to me not at David Ives's play but on Facebook today, when someone referred to "violating a statue," having mis-spelled "statute."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Venus in Fur

To celebrate what would have been my mother's eighty-ninth birthday last night (had she not died on February 4), went to a play. She'd certainly have approved.

The best new play I’ve seen in years: Venus in Fur. (by David Ives, a witty man.) A playwright (Wes Bentley) has made a play out of Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, the eponym of Sado-Masochism (which novel everyone knows about but no one seems to have read – anyway, I sure haven’t), and he’s annoyed with all the actresses who have auditioned, and at the last minute one more shows up (the divine Nina Arianda), apparently a typical ditzy New York/L.A. brainless blonde, screaming, “Fuck!” when things go wrong, wearing inappropriate (for the era) fetish clothes, not understanding his allusions.

She nonetheless insists he let her read for him, “You don’t have to tell me about sado-masochism; I work in the theater.” And she puts on a Victorian dress and suddenly, like a light-switch, she’s a self-possessed aristocratic Austro-Hungarian of the 1870s with an entirely different accent (more or less British) and entirely different manner and movements, and he falls under her spell, and then every now and then she snaps out of it, is a ditz again (with no pause, it’s hilarious just to hear her do it, the moment you hear her whiny American accent the illusion shatters and we’re back in the rehearsal room), and she leaves him utterly bewildered and gradually demolishes him, exploiting the sado-masochistic feelings he’s always denied - and turns out (possibly) to be the goddess Aphrodite come to punish him for his self-suppression and his male condescension to women - and by the end she has him eagerly playing a girl whom she, as a man, exploits and crushes - most amazing (and funniest) performance I’ve seen on any stage in years - and probably the best staging of the central confrontation of the Bacchae, though using hardly any lines from that play. A major pagan event. Absolutely riveting.

At the end, my date, Nika, said, “Did you notice?” (I hadn’t.) “While we were doubled over laughing, most of the people in the audience didn’t get it at all; they had no idea what it was about.”

One could spend a night, many nights, just watching emotions play on Arianda's by no means conventionally beautiful face. Wonderful, wonderful.