Sunday, November 29, 2009

Clip of the Week - December 1 - Aida - Act IV, scene 1

This perhaps one of my favorite scenes in all of opera (I have lots of favorite).  But this scene combines great vocal demands on the singers and an intense dramatic situation + there is chorus + there are prominent parts for bass clarinet and English horn.  Now, what could be more perfect than all of that!  This performance is from the Met in 1988.  Dolora Zajick is Amneris and Placido Domingo is Rhadames.  This is - for me - perhaps one of the finest performances of this scene I have ever experienced.  Both singers are brilliant - but Rhadames is taken off to be judged and he refuses to defend himself - so Zajick as Amneris is left to dominate the rest of the scene and she is spectacular.  The end is simply thrilling.  Also - note - by the time he composed Aida, Verdi had started to break away from the orchestra traditions of his predecessors like Donizetti and the score to Aida is one of Verdi's best orchestrated scores.  His use of the winds in particular is really creative - note the mournful bass clarinet and English horn in the duet (it almost reminds me of Wagner's use of the bass clarinet in "Tristan" during King Marke's monologue).  And then there is the syncopated trumpets in the transition to the judgment scene - followed immediately by the low horns which accompany the entrance of the priests.  Off stage brass punctuate the judgement scene - along with perhaps the most famous bass drum solo in all of opera.  Then the low horns return terrifying as the chorus returns to the stage singing "traditor."  And to finish it all of Amneris curses them with intense hate.  Finally - the brilliant Met orchestra is conducted by James Levine.  Notice as the encounter between Amneris and the priests conclude that Levine very subtly pushes the tempo - this adds so much to the drama and the excitment of this scene.  He is also spot on with Zajick at the end.

I was thinking of posting the link to this scene from Liciu - but the filming was not as good.  Overall it was just too dark and fuzzy.  It is good - but of the versions of this scene available on YouTube - this is, in my opinion, the best.  Enjoy......  (it is in three parts - unfortunately).

Aida – Act 4 – Scene 1 – Zajick and Domingo

Monday, November 23, 2009

Clip of the Week - Thanksgiving

This week is Thanksgiving - so in opera for what am I thankful?  There is quite a lot - brilliant singers, great operatic works that continue to move and edify.  So on this thanksgiving - 2009 - I want to say that I am especially thankful for the life and work of the late great tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  My first experience of him was through recordings.  I never had the opportunity to see or hear him live.  But I am thankful for the Met Texaco broadcasts who brought him and others into my living room every Saturday from the time I was a small child.  So, I want to offer this clip for thanksgiving.  Since it is thanksgiving I wanted something that he really sang beautifully.  So, despite the fact that there are a couple Puccini arias which he sang fit the cill I am posting a link to Pavarotti singing "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'Elisir d'Amore" by Donizetti.  This is a wonderful performance - enjoy - and Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Opera Productions – Reflection on an article about Gary Lakes

Last night I decided to watch the Met Otto Schenk production of Die Walkure, since I had not seen it recently and I was really taken with Gary Lakes. He is a wonderful Siegmund and sings the role beautifully and sensitively – along with Jessie Norman as Sieglinde. (my favorite moment: Siegmund to Brunnhilde – Greet Wotan, Volsa and the maidens for me – I won’t be joining them in Valhalla! – send shivers through me to remember it). Anyway, I was curious as to what Gary Lakes is doing now so I googled him and discovered an article from 2001 from Pittsburg in which he discussed learning the role of Herodes, and also about semi-retirement. I suspect he is now retired. And I wish him all the best. But he said something in the article which got me thinking. He talked about doing great operas like Tannhauser and Damnation of Faust and having them ruined by stage directors. (see the article:

Opera productions!!! I have seen many. Some worked – some didn’t. There is a post here on this blog about a Frankfurt “Carmen” which I considered to be pretty bad. What makes a bad production? It isn’t just the updating. I think it is possible to update an opera and have it work – examples: the Met’s (and LOC) Fideleo, The Met’s Macbeth (I thought both of them were stunning). (Sorry, I really don't like the much vaunted "Hansel and Gretel"). I participated in a production of “L’Elisir” last summer at Sugar Creek where the action was updated to late 19th century. It worked great and was a riot! Bill Swain did a brilliant production of “Cosi” for Opera Illinois where everything was updated. Last summer Illinois Shakespeare did a production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in New Orleans, and perhaps one of the greatest theater experiences of my life was Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “Comedy of Errors” set during the time of World War II (actually the play was enclosed in another play – it was genius and magnificent).

Updating doesn’t always work though – the Seller’s Don Giovanni I thought did not work at all. I saw a Rigoletto at LOC a number of years ago where the opera was updated to a 19th century “Gentleman’s Club.” It was idiotic. The Met production of “La Sonnambula” did not work – but “Daughter of the Regiment” did work. So some updating can work – but the problems begin to arise in my opinion when the stage director begins to replace the original concept of the drama with his or her own. Last night I was looking at clips on YouTube and I found of clip of Natalie Dessay singing Olympia’s aria from “Hoffmann.” (Actually there are about 10 versions of her singing this aria.) Most are fine and she sings beautifully in all of them – but there was one production from Germany (I think) where the action was set in an insane asylum. Olympia is wheeled out on a cart and then – the big sin is this – the tempo is reduced to a crawl to emphasize the insanity I suppose. This is unacceptable in my view. When directors start re-working the music and the tempi then they have over-stepped their bounds.

The new Met Tosca is a new production which attempts to be modern and contemporary. There have been many insightful articles written about this production, so I won’t review all the problems. Except to say that for me, I did not mind the stark sets. I thought some of it worked. But the gratuitousness of the girls at the beginning of Act II was over the line – unnecessary and foolish. I hated all the firing squad drilling at the beginning of Act III – there is something sublimely beautiful about allowing the lighting designer bring day from night while the shepherd boy sings off stage. But I really missed the candles and the crucifix a the end of Act II. What was the point of removing those actions – which Puccini himself had specified. The result: the end of Act II did not work – it was silly and anti-climactic.

Stage directors need to treat to scores to these operas as holy writ – and respect what the composer is trying to convey. Green naked bodies populating the Venusberg in Tannhauser simply do not add anything to the opera; laying Turandot inside a piano and pushing her around adds nothing to this opera; neither do the zombies in the Frankfurt Carmen which replaced the children’s chorus (ok so they were Jose’s demons – I get it) – but do we need to see zombies on stage in order to understand that Don Jose is psychotic; or do we need to see prostitutes servicing Scarpia in order to understand that Scarpia is depraved. Hardly, the composer’s and librettists have already handled this – thank you very much. Now I like creativity and cleverness. I just cast a vote for respecting the artistic vision of the composer and librettist.

Some thoughts on Carmen

Carmen is an opera I know well. I have been in it a couple times (including as a child) and I have played it in the pit a couple times and seen different productions lots of times. I used to listen to the old Rise Stevens recording over and over again. Anyway, I was thinking about this production from last night on Ovation TV - done by the Frankfurt Opera with Daniel Baremboim conducting. The production was very odd in places - but in other ways I think it was trying to fix some basic dramatic errors in the libretto. It didn't really succeed - but it is something to think about.
1. The Lyric production from a couple years ago began the opera with Jose's execution - but when the scene began it was over and the marketplace scene started traditionally. Last night they did the execution thing again - ok - fine. But they left the dead and very bloody Jose laying on the set through the entire 1st scene and when an obviously elderly Michaela enters (long gray white hair, with sunglasses, acting blind) they (Morales and the chorus of soldiers) eventually show her the body and she screams. Ok - interesting. It sort of worked, I guess, one wonders how a blind Michaela could recognize a dead and bloody Jose - considering that it probably occurred right after the events in Act IV. The other problem was that this production killed off Michaela in Act III. Dancairo finds her and shoots her and she dies in Jose's arms. At least that is what we are led to believe. Anyway, nice effort - but it didn't really work.
2. The end of Act I never works. We are supposed to believe that Jose unties Carmen, she pushes him and then runs off - and the soldiers don't go after her? She is surrounded by soldiers and usually one push and all of the soldiers tumble like toys. And then, she takes refuge at Lilas Pastia where Lt. Zuniga is a regular patron?!?!? The only time I have ever seen this ending work is in the Domingo film version when they are on horses and she rides off with soldiers in pursuit. Last night, Carmen is surrounded by a bunch of immobile soldiers - she 1st climbs down a stairway into a trap door, but then it is like she (the actress) realizes she wasn't supposed to do that and runs back up the stairway. Then she runs around in a circle and finally jumps off the set in a Tosca-like manner. All the while, the soldiers (including Zuniga) just watch. It was completely silly - and it did not work. It was worse than the usual silliness of this scene.
3. I would like to think that if Bizet had lived he would have fixed the next problem. Act II - Carmen dances for Jose - the trumpets sound time for role-call (did he really not realize that he had no time for a visit?) They fight and then are interrupted by Zuniga. Then Zuniga and Jose fight. Traditionally, the smugglers (and chorus) appear and break up the fight and tie up Zuniga. Then they (the smugglers) ask Zuniga to join them in their criminal enterprise and Zuniga says YES!!!!!! And then, he threatens them and he is usually left tied up. The film version was funny here as it left Zuniga tied alone while everyone else went off to romantic interludes. Last night during Frankfurt production Jose kills Zuniga with a knife (lots of blood again). I thought this made a lot of sense dramatically. It explains why Jose now has to join the smugglers and it also contributes to the pyschopathic portrayal of Jose. The only problem last night were those silly lines about Zuniga joining up with the smugglers and threatening revenge. Here he is dying a bloody death and he is "oh, certainly, I would love to join your enterprise."
4. Every production of Carmen makes poor Remendado into Dr. Phil - trying to keep the fighting couple apart. Last night was an exception - the smugglers let them fight - until Escamillo arrives on the scene. I liked that. But the card game was absurdly staged (complete with the zombies from act I who appeared during the children's chorus?!?! Huh?) And what was the point of having Frasquita and Mercedes in their underwear for the whole opera. They never changed it - even though the opera takes place over some time. It seems to me that it would be difficult to climb the mountains dressed in lingerie. It was gratuitous. Yes they were cute - but it was silly and made no sense. Carmen, the sexiest of them all, was dressed appropriately for the smuggling task!
5. I loved the knife fight last night - that was the high point of the production. It was really well staged. I loved that Escamillo bests Jose and then Jose cheats.
6. Shooting Michaela was gratuitous. I appreciated that she had some spunk - but it was over the top. And having Carmen fighting with Michaela during the cigarette factory fight was silly.
7. Ok - I realize that the opening of Act IV is difficult for the chorus. But I have seen productions which cut the entire opening and start Act IV with the Escamillo and Carmen's declaration of love. It doesn't work. Find a way to do some of the opening chorus in this act. Also there is no excuse for cutting the Act IV entr'acte - as one production I saw did. THis is one of the most famous and brilliant orchestral pieces Bizet ever wrote and it sets the scene beautifully.
8. Last night the zombies came out and watched the fight between Carmen and Jose which was staged as a bull fight. Which I thought was silly - Carmen as the bull. They also killed off Escamillo - they carry his very bloody body on stage at the end of the scene. This desite the fact that the chorus keeps singing "Victoria!" Oh, but that was the zombies and they were singing at Carmen - huh???? And they finished it off with the execution of Jose - ok, fine.

It took 4 and a half hours - almost as long as Gotterdamerung because of all the silly commercials. But Rolando Villazon was spectacular. I loved the way he developed the obsession. During the duet with Michaela he was completely distracted by the flower. It worked. The rest of the cast was very good. I loved the young singers who played Zuniga, Morales, Frasquita, Mercedes, Remendado and Dancairo. The quintet was brilliant. Zuniga was the best Zuniga I have ever seen in that role - vocally and acting. Carmen was vocally magnificent - but her acting was not up to par with Villazon. The highlights were: the duet with Michaela, the quintet, the Flower aria and the knife fight. I would have included the final scene except I was so distracted by the zombies. So that is my 2 cents about Carmen.

Welcome to my Opera Blog

Opera has been an important part of my life since I was a child. I love opera and have some insights and strong opinions. I decided to start this blog to share them with whoever might be interested. Feel free to disagree and comment.