Apr 28, 2017

"You Can Feel Every Word"

Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and Maria Callas as Tosca, from a 1965 production of Tosca (via)
In the early days of video recording technology, my mother would tape any and every opera production broadcast on PBS. By the end of the 1980s, we had a huge collection of VHS tapes, all carefully labelled in my mother's tidy handwriting. Some we'd never watch again; some lived in the VCR. One that I kept going back to, from the time I was a child, was Puccini's Tosca; I think it was the first opera I watched repeatedly (at least until we got hold of a copy of Francesco Rosi's raunchy Carmen), and one I never got bored of, either musically or dramatically. Many a rainy summer's day was spent in front of the TV, my friends and I with our root beer floats in hand, watching Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil swirl, roar, sweat, and sigh through Franco Zeffirelli's opulent production. My youthful passion for the production was what inspired my mother to return to the Met after well over a decade of absence; this time she brought an excited little girl who sat pie-eyed throughout the whole thing, wearing shiny shoes, a smart little red jacket, and a giant smile.

We owned a few classic recordings of Puccini's famous 1899 work, and even now, putting those vinyl recordings on (the Callas/Gobbi version especially), I'm struck by just how dramatically expressive the score is. Tosca a great introduction for young newcomers to the world of opera; the music clearly tells you everything you need to know. A passionate lady lead! A persecuted lover! A rip-roaring bad guy! It's the stuff of great novels, old Hollywood, dreamy (if doomed) romances. As well as entertainment value, so many personal memories are connected to this work, including the premiere Met visit. I was simultaneously scared of and thrilled by Scarpia, and for years, I couldn't see (much less hear) MacNeil as anything but the dastardly villain of the piece. Hearing the opening notes of his introduction still sends a shiver down my spine. Years later, my father would play the famous "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the stars were shining") for me on his violin, unbidden. It was the last thing I heard him play.

It was a thrill to learn Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente would be performing as Mario Cavaradossi (who sings that famous aria in the opera's last act) for the Canadian Opera Company's spring production of Toscaand opposite the great soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose work I so enjoyed last month at the Met, in Fidelio. I've followed Puente's work for years, and have admired his passionate, head-first approach to dramatic material, as well as his golden, honey-toned tenor voice. He recently made his Covent Garden debut in another Puccini role, as Pinkerton in the Royal Opera's Madame Butterfly, to rave reviews. Next season, he'll be the dramatic role of Don Alvaro in Verdi's La forza del destino at the Semperoper in Dresden, and will also be making his debut at Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, in a new production of Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, as another doomed romantic hero. What's up with that? I spoke with Marcelo about singing romantic leads, why he dropped out of medical school (true story), and just why audiences should care about a character like Cavaradossi.



(Photo of Marcelo Puente by Helen Bianco)

Apr 18, 2017

Listed, Schmisted

(L-R) Groucho Marx, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, from 'A Night At The Opera" (via)
If you are active on social media, you may have seen the recent "musical" lists going around and being shared by contacts on Facebook, in which favorites (non-faovorites as well) are revealed. An opera version was quick to follow, and I've been reading the lists shared by various friends (including those working both inside and outside the industry) with much interest. 

Tempted to join the trend, I found (shock) my own version was a bit too long, and it just became easier (and more logical) to post here, for everyone, including my many lovely European readers. 

Hopefully some of these choices inspire, amuse, illuminate; some may really raise eyebrows, others may inspire smirks. Either way, I'd love to know if any of these might prod you, good reader, into either listening or watching a work in a new way, or even experiencing an opera for the first time. I hope so! Either way, enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts. 



Opera I hate: 

I find this to be such a reductive question; I don't hate any of them. Sometimes a certain production can lead to intense dislike, even hate, and that's a pity; sometimes, the opposite is just as true, with a smart production elevating mediocre material, illuminating and inspiring audiences (which is, of course, lovely and delightful). There are definitely a lot of mediocre works, and directors, and it's so often a question of finding the right pairing. I don't envy programmers at all these days, especially with the current challenges facing the art form.

Opera I think is overrated: 

There are no overrated operas; only undercooked (or over-heated) ideas in presenting them.

A scene from L'enfant et les sortileges. (Photo: Komische Oper / 1927, via)
Opera I think is underrated: 

Two, off the top of my head (though there are many):

- Stitch, by Anna Chatterton (who I interviewed last summer) and Juliet Palmer; this is a very moving work about sweatshop workers, deceptively simple, but more timely than ever;

- L'enfant et les sortileges, by Maurice Ravel, which I saw for the first time this past winter in Berlin, in a very beautiful production at Komische Oper. It's a whimsical work, with a very impressionistic score, and its libretto is ripe for directorial creativity. I also think it would make a great introduction for kids, though it's rightly been pointed out that the work is more of "a musical grotesqueness for adults rather than a children’s opera." True, but still vastly underrated. 

Opera I love: 

There are truly too many things I love to mention. Even with works I take issue with, I almost always tend to find something I like, or even love, and sometimes, it's a great performer who will elevate the material (or my experience of it) from meh to marvellous. 

For instance, seeing (and interviewing) Patricia Racette in the title role in Madame Butterfly at the Canadian Opera Company in 2014 really made me re-think, and thus, re-experience this work in some important ways. I still find large swaths of it troublesome, but Racette's interpretation and understanding of the role is so great, and she so very much made it her own (and from what I'd call a refreshngly feminist place), it was like seeing the famous Puccini work for the first time. Great artists have this power. 

(L-R) Sesto Bruscantini and Luciano Pavarotti in a scene from L'elisir D'Amore (via video)
Opera I cherish: 

This feels like a personal question; the act of cherishing something implies a kind of intimacy and comfort coupled with deep gratitude. I'm grateful for every work, but things that speak to me on a personal level include Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore (its tuneful score is so warm, so bright, so full of humanity), Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (such a gorgeous study of fidelity, authenticity, and the corners of the human heart), and Berlioz's Le damnation de Faust — not strictly an opera in the traditional sense, but when it done right, can be very powerful, as my experience of it in Europe this past winter so wonderfully highlighted. 

Guilty pleasure: 

There is no such thing as guilty opera love, is there? That implies there's a kind of snobbery within the art form about things opera fans are "supposed" to like or dislike – to hell with those rules, and that way of thinking. Pleasure is pleasure; music is music; love is love. Go listen to something you enjoy, and don't feel ever feel guilty that it somehow isn't cool enough for the supposed "in" crowd.

Opera I want to see revived: 

In North America, it would be nice to see more Meyerbeer put onstage; his stuff is musically dense, but has intense passages of musical wonder rich with fascinating characterizations as well as great theatrical possibilities. I'd also like to see Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, Puccini's La Rondine, and the work of Hungarian operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán staged far more often on these shores. 

Opera that I first saw on DVD: 

Forget DVDs! I have fond memories of regularly watching (and taping) Met broadcasts on the PBS program, "Great Performances."

Opera that I first saw live

Bizet's Carmen (at age three!).

Opera that I first performed in: 

I've never performed in opera, but I did act in the theater many years ago, and I particularly enjoyed Shaw's Saint Joan, Sophocles' Antigone, and Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. I walked away from the stage years ago, and thankfully, found just as much value, power, and profundity in comic works as I used to see solely in tragedy. Ah, the wonderful things maturity brings.  


Opera I most recently saw: 

Live, La traviata recently at the Met in New York City (rundown here); on PVR, Wagner's epic Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. The latter is a very good example of the right production hitting the right emotional and intellectual notes in order to produce a whole new experience and understanding of the score. The production, from 2009 and done at the Bayerische Staatsoper, was a very modern, unusual staging (which provoked some strong reactions in the opera world); I've enjoyed it for a while now (this wasn't my first PVR viewing), and I thought Richard Jones' directorial ideas truly suited the work; his sometimes-risky concept was helped immeasurably by the utterly committed performances of its leads, who were heartbreaking and fantastic and... sigh

Greatest opening

A few thoughts here: 

I think Verdi had some bombastically good openings musically; you can't beat the boom-boom-bang wonder of Rigoletto or Il trovatore or La Traviata. I remember my mother always seemed as if she was on the verge of jumping out of her chair, either at the opera house or at home, whenever the opening bars of any (/all) of these was played (and that's after the overtures). I remember her shoulders hunching up, her eyes squeezing shut, her fingers curling into fists, as the music played, and her saying, quietly, after a few moments, "ohhhhhh, Verdi...." You have to admit, he is great with the attention-getting openings. 

For myself, I think one of the most intriguing and misunderstood of openings is Don Giovanni; it's really not at all as clear-cut as many believe it to be; I'm really not sure Donna Anna is as pure as many have made her out to be; I know how risky that is to say, but pffffft... the music whispers, at least to my ears, that we should be questioning, completely, the scene, in and of itself, and not taking its events — or characters — at face value. I deeply like (and heartily agree with) how director Sven-Eric Bechtolf staged this, along with the entire opera, last summer in Salzburg. Read on... 

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Carmelo Remigio in Don Giovanni (© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz)
Greatest ending: 

I dislike the "greatest" label – I find it insultingly reductive, and taste is such a personal thing anyway — but I will say, I enjoy the ending of Don Giovanni, because, like Austen's great novels, it ends with people who are facing a new and uncertain kind of beginning; once the title character gets dragged off (to wherever — hell is non-existence to some), everyone has to figure out how and why to live now that he – that viral, vibrant tornado of chaos — is gone. 

To those who know me well, it's not a grand secret that I really, really loved Sven-Eric Bechtolf's staging of this opera in Salzburg last summer (a re-mount of his 2014 production); it struck chords with me in ways I still can't quite explain – though the fact he treated the women as actual human beings with real needs went a long, long way (for me) in further appreciating and understanding this troubling work, and it all started with a very sexy opening, and closed with... more suggestion of sex, a kind of continuation of that restless, rule-breaking chaos that is both so dangerous and attractive. Mozart and Da Ponte wrote a great ending full of question marks; Bechtolf took that and ran with it. Bravo!

Worst middle of an otherwise great opera

I really don't like this question, because it doesn't take into account how damn hard the writing process actually is. 

Many times librettists and composers (to say nothing of writers, editors, producers, and other assorted creative types) struggle against the dreaded middle-section-sag, sometimes to no avail. This is where good directors, conductors, and performers become extra-special important (more than they already are, of course); it's up to the creative teams (sound as well as visual) to create something special with material that develops such unfortunate (if occasionally unavoidable) sag. Find something to elevate and illuminate, for audiences, and for yourselves; I think this is the aim of many good artists past and present, to be honest, and it is worth keeping in mind when you find yourself nodding off in the middle of anything. 

Some do this at the opera. (via)
Greatest opera of all time: 

The next one I'm going to see, of course — or that you'll suggest to me. 

Apr 7, 2017

Too Much Is Not Enough

(Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Is too much of a good thing really so bad?

In Salzburg last August, I was spoiled in seeing operas and concerts every day and night of my visit; I generally avoid this, as it not only hurts the brain, but robs the soul of some meaningful (and usually much-needed, in my case) contemplation, as well as necessary human connection and company. I like to sit between things and drink, write, and live: go to dinner, go to galleries, take long walks — but mostly, think, feel, absorb. Good music, well sung and presented, offers me big meal needing a slow digestion, which is best done in silence and sunshine, over wine or cocktails, with friends in lively talks, on walks through the woods with birdsong and breezes.

Alas, I didn't get much time for any of that on a recent trip to New York City, where I saw four operas over a three-day visit, with various work-related things to complete two of the three day times. New York in winter is challenging enough; being exposed to so music, and so many ideas, presented a wholly unique level of emotional and intellectual heartburn. Then again, it was its own kind of binge, and I can't say I'm sorry for indulging. All the operas I saw (Fidelio, Idomeneo, Romeo et Juliette, and La Traviata) left strong impressions in different ways, but what linked them all was the tremendously high quality of singing, and, in some cases, the intriguing smart approach to directing.

The Met's revival of Fidelio, for instance (which closes tomorrow, Saturday, April 8th), was so good that I still recall (and am stopped in my tracks by) various images it presented. Beethoven's sole opera revolves around a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband Florestan, who is being held prisoner by a ruthless state governor, Don Pizarro.  Many people not familiar with opera will be familiar with the famous "Leonore" overture, the third in a series of pieces Beethoven wrote in his frenzy to perfect the work. I have clear memories of seeing this opera at the Canadian Opera Company decades ago with my mother, and her writing an angry letter to the company after the production did not include this overture; to her, it was sacrilege, but of course, it was difficult to convey, in a diplomatic matter, that the habit of playing it as part of an opera production (usually just before the finale) had fallen out of fashion, for logistical as well as dramatic reasons. I still think of her, and in fact, did again this trip. Jurgen Flimm's production, however, is so smart, and the performances so very engaging (particularly sopranos Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Adrienne Pieczonka, who I am very much looking forward to seeing in the Canadian Opera Company's Tosca), that I honestly didn't miss that bit of nostalgia at all. Sorry, mom. 

Fidelio bows (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Flimm, who is Director of the Staatsoper Berlin Unter den Linden since 2010 (and whose work you'll be reading more about in a post later this spring) has placed the action of the work —traditionally set in late 18th-century Seville after the French Revolution — in immediately-post-WW2 Europe. In doing this, he uses imagery that some (especially those of us familiar with Holocaust photo documents) may find familiar; piles of shoes, for instance, along with other personal belongings, are piled into corners in the underground dungeon where Florestan is being held, the only signs of the vanished, the ranks of which Don Pizarro firmly plans his prisoner to join. Director Flimm gives a poignant commentary on the nature of power here, and how its abuse creates political discord which is expressed as a deep social malaise. Thus, relationships are given a distinct emphasis: those between employer and employee, prisoner and guard, father and daughter, husband and wife — and, more broadly, men and women. Everything is poisoned, and thus, everyone. 

Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in the way Flimm staged the interactions between Leonore (Adrienne Pieczonka), the prison warden Rocco (Falk Struckmann), Marzellina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) and Jaquino (David Portillo), an assistant to Rocco at the prison where Leonore's husband Florestan (Klaus Florian Vogt) is being held illegally by Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley). The stark contrast between the Marzellina/Jaquino and Leonore/Florestan relationships was highlighted at the ending of the opera, which, for all its raucous joy, had a satisfyingly bitter edge, with Flimm showing the corrupt Pizarro being led to the gallows by celebrating freed prisoners, and Marzellina's look of horror as she realizes the "boy" she'd been infatuated with was really a woman; Jaquino is intent on harassing (or rather, bullying, in the manner of his old boss) the poor girl into submission, as she drops blood-red roses across the celebratory scene. Leonore and Florestan are hoisted in joy by the happy onlookers as Robert Israel's stark set, with its unmistakeable gallows, looms over the proceedings, a grim reminder that the happiness on display is not only fleeting, but mixed with violence, the sort that its purer form (in the form of Leonore) sought to eradicate. It is a caustic ending that offers a fantastically smart and very timely non-conclusion to what many consider to be one of the most difficult works in the operatic repertoire.

Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo / Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (via)
Less about production and far, far more about the singing in and of itself providing the drama, Mozart's 1781 opera Idomeneo, featured a stellar cast that included soprano Elza van den Heever (whose work I so enjoyed last fall, when she performed the lead in Norma with the Canadian Opera Company) and tenor Matthew Polenzani, who is the recipient of a 2017 Opera News Award (which are being handed out in NYC this coming Sunday, April 9th). More than once during that Friday evening performance I found myself shutting eyes and throwing head back in sheer wonder at Polenzani's marvelously emotive voice, his "Fuor del mar" in the second act a particularly heartfelt interpretation. (Sidenote: I am greatly looking forward to the revival of his Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore next season; expect a post about that.) Lindemann Young Artist Development Program graduate Yin Fang, who sang the role of Ilia, has a gorgeous, crystalline soprano, as well as a gracious stage presence that made her scenes with mezzo soprano Alice Coote (in a pants role, as Idamante, son of the title character) a joy to listen to. The 35 year-old production, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was tasteful if homogenous — which was useful, because it allowed a pure experience of Mozart's music, in and of itself. Maestro James Levine conducted a lustrous Met Orchestra that allowed for the score's youthful vivacity to shine through, something the singers took full and glorious advantage of. 

In the parterre.
 (Photo: mine, link /  Please do not reproduce without 
permission)
Equally compelling was American theatre director Bartlett Sher's Romeo et Juliette, French composer Charles Gounod's tuneful 1867 interpretation of the Shakespearean tale of the star-crossed lovers. The house was, I think, nearly sold out for this special closing show, which featured star turns from soprano Pretty Yende and tenor Stephen Costello in the leads. Yende is a highly watchable performer, her lilting voice as responsive and graceful as the fluters of her gorgeous Catherine Zuber-designed costumes; she shared an exceptional chemistry with Costello, whose wholly romantic rendering of "Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil!" made more than a few of the ladies around me happily sigh. Making his mark in a small but pivotal role as Frère Laurent as English bass Matthew Rose (who I interviewed recently); his authoritative bass voice expressed a wonderfully nuanced range of emotions, and that, together with the way he cleverly used his physicality (Rose is very tall), suggested a touching paternal protectiveness of the young lovers. 

Last but not least on my NYC opera whirlwind trip was Verdi's La Traviata, perhaps one of the best-known of all works, though this staging was easily one of the most modern I've attended. The story, about a popular, if secretly ill, courtesan who finds real love and ultimately gives it up when pressured, only to tragically die (come on, you knew that was coming), is one of the most popular works in opera, with a very famous drinking song that everyone (yes, even you) knows and has hummed to once or twice. Directed by German theater artist Willy Decker from a 2005 production at the Salzburg Festival, the set principally consisted of a massive curved wall, with an overall design aesthetic containing strong German expressionist influences. Violetta's place as an isolated woman who craves (and survives on) male attention was confirmed and re-confirmed throughout the evening, as was director Decker's belief that Traviata is (as he notes in the program notes) "a piece about death"; by the end I felt as if I'd been continually hit with a large frying pan labelled Big Artistic Ideas. If it all seemed dramatic and theatrical, I suppose it was meant to, wiping away any lingering memories of traditional productions involving big dresses and fans, and I was actually quite pleased the performers put their whole passion into this endeavour, offering vocal interpretations that precisely matched the strong directorial vision. Its leads —soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta, tenor Michael Fabiano as Alfredo, and baritone Thomas Hampson as Giorgio Germont (Alfredo's father) — delivered searing performances that were entirely modern and watchable, even, dare I say, cinematic, with Fabiano, especially, easily delivering, one of the most memorable (and applauded) interpretations of Alfredo I've ever seen; he wasn't merely passionate about Violetta, but dangerously obsessive. The fact I found myself so impressed is, in retrospect, notable; this was one of my mother's very favorite works, and I suspect I have seen it now many hundreds of times. I also suspect she would have, in her infinite Verdi wisdom, been as gaga over the performances as I was. 

The set of La Traviata (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
La Traviata continues at the Met to April 14th, with Carmen Giannattasio as Violetta,  Atalla Ayan as Alfredo, and, starting tomorrow night (Saturday, April 8th), Placido Domingo as Giorgio Germont. Go! Andiamo! You may not agree with all of Decker's creative choices, but I guarantee you will come out with at least one strong image from this production seared into your brain (never a bad thing, ultimately), and with the brindisi — as vibrant a piece of music as ever — still ringing in your ears.  

Apr 6, 2017

Go Eat

Still from 'Young Frankenstein' (1974)
I've gotten away from food writing, among other things, the last few years. There's no real reason for this (other than dramatic life events, I suppose) -- my love of cooking remains unabated, and I do it several times a week, more than usual the last while, as I stock up my freezer with portion-sized things in anticipation of a busy time.

However, sometimes I don't crave anything hearty so much as fresh, light, tasty. I love my salads, but virulent IBS doesn't make it possible to enjoy salads as much as I'd like. It's only been through trial and error I've discovered what my body will and won't accept: Boston lettuce, yes; kale-anything, no. Based on some tasty recent experiences at a favorite restaurant, I started experimenting with basic ingredients, ones I knew wouldn't upset me, but would still satisfy my hunger for crunchy, tasty, light... and easy. It may come as a shock to some, but working from home doesn't automatically mean that nothing is hard, tiring (even exhausting), or draining — quite the opposite, particularly if one happens to live alone.

Regardless of work environment and family status, the last thing one may wish to do at the end of a busy, full day is cook up a large, heavy meal, especially at the end of a winter season that's already been filled with many meals of that nature. Some very basic washing, blotting, chopping (similar to Nigella Lawson describing stirring as "soothing," I find chopping has a similar effect on me), and then light mixing, is the best kind of therapy I can think of, not to mention incredibly nourishing.

I've been heartened the last little while by the reaction I received to my first "light dinner" experiment; when I posted a photo of my creation on Instagram, the reaction was pleasingly enthusiastic. Tonight I decided to make a follow-up, using a few ingredients I wish I'd originally had, and usually always do have on-hand. I think we all have our basics we like to have at hand — in our pantries, refrigerators, sitting on the counter or breadboard, waiting to be used. My basics (as you'll see listed below) include flat parsley (also called Italian parsley), cannellini (a white kidney, but smaller), plum tomatoes, roasted red peppers (else a chopped, marinated peppers), feta cheese, kalamata olives, sometimes sun-dried tomatoes, and more often than not lately, radicchio (because I can digest it without trouble; because it keeps for a while; and because it is tasty). These ingredients are in addition to very good olive oil and white balsamic, both of which I always have at hand. I use almost all the ingredients in the recipe below -- but if you want to use everything, go for it; feel free to throw in some marinated artichoke hearts, pieces of cooked, chopped chicken breast, and/or snips of curly endive and/or fresh dill, too.

Of course, this should be enjoyed with crusty baguette that has been warmed up quick in the oven.

Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

Radicchio Dinner Salad

1/2 head of radicchio
1/2 bunch flat parsley
1 plum tomato
1 whole roasted pepper OR 2-3 spoons of chopped peppers from the jar
1 400g/398ml/14 fl oz tin of cannellini, rinsed and drained
8-10 kalamata olives, pitted
1 double-thumb-sized chunk of feta (optional)
6-8 sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
extra-virgin olive oil
white balsamic
fresh pepper
salt

Thinly slice radicchio lengthwise, then roughly chop. You're aiming for luxurious, longish purple shards. Place in a large salad bowl.

Rinse parsley and roughly chop. Shake excess moisture off. Wrap in a towel to blot water.
Do the same with the cannellini; after rinsing and draining, wrap them in a towel (paper or cloth; either is fine) to absorb the excess moisture. This step is very important, both for flavour, and for the texture of your salad.

Chop plum tomato, keeping mind to discard the seeds before placing in bowl with radicchio. (Again, this affects not only the flavour, but the texture, and if, like me, you have a hard time digesting them, it's a favour to your body.)

Roughly chop roasted pepper, or measure 2-3 generous spoons of chopped pepper from the jar. Throw it on top of your radicchio. Don't worry if you get a bit (just a bit!) of the oil from the marinade in there; that gives flavour.

Roughly chop kalamata olives and throw in the bowl.
Same with sun-dried tomatoes, if using, and feta, which you can roughly chop, or crumble with your fingers straight into the bowl.

Retrieve the towel-blotted parsley, then cannellini, adding both to the bowl.

Add a small glug of olive oil, and a sprinkling of olive oil; grind in pepper and salt as you wish.

Toss.

Enjoy (especially with crusty baguette).

Store unused portions in airtight (preferably glass) container.

Easy, delicious, healthy; now wasn't that easy?