Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tannhäuser, San Francisco Opera

So I saw Tannhäuser at the opera last night.

You may not believe this, but before Saturday I'd never heard the damn thing from beginning to end. I don't own a recording, and it was last performed in San Francisco just before I went back to regular opera attendence. I know it only at the bleeding-chunks level, that is, the overture, hymn to love, hymn to the evening star, Elisabeth's greeting to the hall of song. I'm sure I've heard her prayer and his Rome narrative, but not often enough to remember them.

Stupidest. Plot. Ever. Elisabeth: drippiest female character in an array of drippy Wagner women. It's very hard to have any sympathy at all for her. And you know that all the knights are only pissed at Tannhäuser because he got it on with the Goddess of Love and they didn't. Elisabeth is right to try to get him off the hook: he has surely learned a few good moves from the Goddess.

Also, we're burdened with what must be the stupidest production ever, well, maybe not, but good grief. If you have to launch the opera with a ballet, for God's sake don't have the dancers doing the hokey-pokey and bad 1980s aerobics-class routines. Don't have Wolfram breaking Elisabeth's neck after her prayer. We understand that the Bacchanal has something to do with sex, but you don't have to make it explicit. At least give Venus and Tannhäuser a BED if you must. Do you want to leave her back abraded??

Don't have half-naked children crawling out of the dirt you've strewn all over the stage. Don't put a full-sized concert harp on stage and then never have anyone play it. Don't crush someone under the harp, and if you do, don't have him revived by being passed through the trunk of a tree. Don't embarrass the Goddess of Love by making her dress in a towel, and do not have her open the towel so she can flash Tannhäuser (but not us).* Don't trap Venus and Tannhäuser inside a ring of fire for 15 minutes, leaving the audience worried that they're about to see a fine singer burnt to a crisp. We really do get that they have the hots for each other without the visual prompt. Don't put a tree on stage and then have it deteriorate in each act - what do you think it is, the World Ash? Wrong damn Wagner opera! And what's a tree doing in the Hall of Song anyway?

Don't have the Landgraf enter on a horse. Alloy is a beauty, but mostly a distraction, with everyone in the audience - and on stage - hoping his feeding schedule was properly arranged. Don't put the singers on the ground unless they're dead or dying. Don't decorate the pilgrims with HATE and other sins all spelled out for us. We get that they have some good reason for traveling to Rome. Don't have all the knights holding their swords by the blade: no real knight would risk getting cut or damaging his sword. And don't have pages driving swords into the ground to act as fence posts penning in the knights during the battle of the singers.

At least there were no fedoras or black trench coats to be seen. Still, if Graham Vick and the choreographer had taken the stage for bows, you bet I would have booed them lustily, and since I was in Row E of the orchestra, they would have heard me, too.

That said, I'm glad I went and sorry I can't go again, because musically, all was magnificence. Donald Runnicles was at his best, and he is never better than in Wagner; the orchestra played with their customary miraculous skill, some bumps at the beginning of the overture notwithstanding. Hats off to the harpist, especially, for many great moments. Runnicles insisted on the Paris version; I love the Tristanesque flavor of the Paris music but it makes for a musically incoherent text, alas. I can't overstate the magnificence of the chorus.

With the exception of James Rutherford's woolly-voiced Wolfram - and he was not unmusical - the casting could hardly have been better. Petra Lang was a sultry, red-haired Venus, sometimes a bit stretched at the top (for a crossover role, maybe this is better for a soprano with a solid low register rather than a mezzo with a solid top). Eric Halvorson's Landgraf was solidly sung, if with a remaining tinge of the wobble that marred his Gremin in the Mansouri years. Ji Young Yang made her SFO debut with a gorgeously-sung Shepherd.

Best of all were the Elisabeth of Petra Maria Schnitzer and Tannhäuser of Peter Seiffert. He's a wonderful singer with a voice that is not quite beautiful, though it may once have been. At 53, I can imagine there's some wear and tear on his voice, and it showed occasionally in a slight wobble on loud notes at the top of his register. In compensation, he is perfectly accurate and very musical, rare things in this punishing repertory and especially this monstrously difficult role. It is true that his singing was slanted to the stentorian and could have used more softness at times, but his utter security and musicality more than made up for that.

It's funny, I heard him on a Met broadcast of Tannhäuser a few years back and thought him wobbly and not very good. After hearing him live, I will chalk up my previous impression to the terrible engineering and microphone placement for the broadcasts.

Schnitzer has the perfect voice for Elisabeth, and also for Eva and Elsa; a beautiful, easily-produced, high-set lyric soprano with superb control and just enough volume for this role. She overdid the winsomeness and never seemed truly tragic, but it's hard to know how much of this to blame on Vick's direction. Those three roles, Freia, and Gutrune will be her limit in Wagner; she hasn't got the low register for Sieglinde, Isolde, and Brunnhilde. I think she must be stunning in Strauss.

Update: The Standing Room reminds me that I meant to say something above about taxidermy.

* The last time I saw this trick it was Rosemary Joshua as Semele, at ENO. She sang "Endless Pleasure" wrapped in the towel, then strolled offstage and calmly dropped the towel three steps from the wings. Joshua is a slim thing, and needless to say Ruth Ann Swenson, in the highly elaborate production seen here in 2000, did not follow suit.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Desperately Seeking

One ticket to Book of Longing at Stanford next month. It's the new Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen collaboration. The ticket is for my partner, not me. Let me know the price, etc.

In Search of Mozart

I got email about the film In Search of Mozart on Sept. 19, and should have blogged it before now. I am booked for the weekend and can't get there, but maybe you can.

The film sounds extremely interesting. Try to ignore the awful first paragraph of the blurb at the web site of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I have already complained about it, you betcha.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Bargain

Some years ago, I asked Alex Stepanov what his favorite Ring was, and to my surprise, he named Marek Janowski's. I had heard this performance in the early/mid 1980s because one of my housemates owned it, but I was not any kind of judge of singing or Wagner performances then.

Alex's recommendation stuck in my head, and when the Janowski was re-released by RCA a couple of years back I picked up a copy, for all of $80. It seemed a bargain to me; among other things, I paid only $20 more than I would have paid for a single opera in the outrageously-priced Testament set conducted by Keilberth.

It took some time for me to listen through the Janowski, and I'm sorry I didn't blog it at the time. The cycle gets off to a slowish start; with a comparatively anonymous Rheingold and a Walkuere first act that needs more impetuousness. (That said, it's still one of the best-sung recorded versions of Act I, with Jerusalem, Moll, and Norman.) Then it picks up, and it's a really fine performance up to the very end. The biggest problem is Theo Adam's barky, scrawny Wotan, and that is certainly a big problem. Everyone else sings well, some much better than that. Jeanine Altmeyer is a terrific Bruennhilde; no, she doesn't have the Nilsson trumpet in her throat, but she has a beautiful voice and is one of the most interesting and expressive Valkyries on record. Peter Schreier's Mime has to be heard, as well.

I found out today that Berkshire Record Outlet has the Janowski for all of $42. Get yourself a copy; you won't regret it.


Some readers of this blog know that I am something of a public health geek. Yesterday, for example, I got to tell Steven Johnson, author of The Ghost Map, that John Snow has been a household god of mine and Dr. Strega's for a long time. Yes, it helps that I live with a partner who holds a Doctorate of Public Health degree, but this interest of mine didn't start with her.

So you could say that I'm curious about the person who visits this blog from the Centers for Disease Control. I would welcome private email if you're willing to identify yourself.

Happy Birthday

Nineteen fifty-seven was a very good year, and part of the evidence is that Peter Sellars turns fifty today, about midway between Jonathan Bellman's birthday and mine. This is as good a moment as any to mention my first encounter with the Sellars genius, at a now-legendary production.

He was at Harvard when I was at Brandeis. In May September of 1979, a friend found a review of a condensed Ring performance being staged, improbably, at Harvard's Loeb Theater. The review said something about puppets. The friend suggested we go, and a bunch of us got tickets.

We walked in and found that the Loeb was in its theater-in-the-round configuration, but with only three-quarters of the seats in place. No orchestra was in sight. The lights went down, a trap in floor opened, and in the dark we heard the Rheingold prelude emanating from speakers. Spotlit sheets of mylar, manipulated by the fully-visible stage crew, rippled below floor level.

It was pure magic: the perspective was right, the music was Solti.

The prelude reached the entry of the Rheintochterin.

"Weia! Waga!" sang the bright green muppet puppet playing Woglinde. "Woge, du Welle,walle zur Wiege! Wagala weia! Wallala, weiala weia!"

That nicely punctured the reverent mood. The rest of the production was marked by just that balance of cheekiness and affection for the Ring. The giants were macrame, and you could see them only from the hips down, hung from the flies on the proscenium stage. The galloping Valkyries were children's hobby-horses, the magic provided by the best use of a disco ball I've ever seen in my life.

It was a great introduction to the Ring on stage. I wish I could see it again, or that I could find a more complete description of the proceedings.

Thank you for that, Peter, and other productions since and to come.

UPDATED: The Puppet Ring was in September, not May. And a contemporaneous review makes it clear that the giants were made of potato sacks, not macrame. H/T Alex Ross for publishing a copy of the program and sending me a link to the review.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Order

Saariaho: Château De L'âme, Etc / Salonen
Grisey: Les Espaces Acoustiques / Stefan
Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto, Gran Duo /
Saariaho: L'amour De Loin / Finley, Upshaw
Saariaho: Du Cristal, ...à La Fumé
Glass: Satyagraha / Keene, Reeve, Perry,

Name That Tune!

A game played in many places, including The Well, where I've had an account for many years.

My friend Mike Walsh put together a particularly fiendish round of Name That Tune recently. Here's what he said about it:

The three clips are about 40 seconds each, and I'm confident everyone [reading this on the Well] can name the tunes. There are two meta-questions:
  1. What do all three clips have in common?
  2. What distinguishes each clip from the other two?
So, what are the tunes, and what are the answers to the questions about? The clips are here, in MP3 format. I wish there were a way to hide blog comments from view.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Saint Francois d'Assise

Alex reports that Gerard Mortier plans to stage Messiaen's opera Saint Francois d'Assise. (Read the whole New York Sun interview here.)

I saw the American premiere of Saint Francois at San Francisco Opera five years ago. I caught only one performance, and note the following:
  • I'm a Messiaen fan. I love Turangalila, Quator pour la fin du temps, and almost everything else I have heard by him.

  • Saint Francois was the closest thing to torture I have ever experienced in the opera house or concert hall. I stumbled out of the second act thinking it had lasted three hours and was shocked to find it had only been 90 minutes.

  • I was sufficiently traumatized by the "Sermon to the Birds" - and the preparatory discussion of the birds - that I flinched months later at the birdsong in Kata Kabanova.

  • The night I saw St. Francois, I told a friend in instant messages that "St. Francois makes Parsifal look like Die Fledermaus."
Nonetheless, I will have to try again, as I have regretted for five years the fact that I only saw one performance. My working theory about my response is that I was suffering from the same problem some entrenched fans of Italian opera have when they see a Wagner opera for the first time: they are so used to the time scale of Verdi and Puccini that they are utterly defeated by the vast reaches of Wagner. I suspect that St. Francois is to Tristan as Tristan is to Il Trovatore.

Readings for a New Opera 4

I bought a ticket to the opening night of Appomattox as soon as San Francisco Opera started accepted single-ticket orders. The fall opera reviews had not yet been assigned by SFCV, and I wanted to see the opening regardless. By the time the assignments rolled around, I had plans to attend the Sibelius Festival in Los Angeles, and it looked as though I'd be heading south on October 6, the day after the premiere, so I took Appomattox off my list of operas I'd like to review.

As things have turned out, I inherited the Appomattox assignment from the original writer. I will use the reviewer's ticket and my partner will use the ticket I purchased. (For some reason, SFO is giving reviewers a single seat. I understand this when it's Music@Menlo, which performs in venues seating 200 and 350, but War Memorial Opera House, with its 3200 seats, is an order of magnitude bigger. Color me puzzled.)

I have not studied American history in any organized fashion since I was in high school, a shocking number of years ago, so you can guess the state of my knowledge of the Civil War. I asked around and cruised the downtown San Francisco Borders Books, then purchased these at Cody's in Berkeley:
  • The Civil War, by Bruce Catton. I've now finished this concise and extremely readable history of the war. The length makes the tale it tells no less moving, and perhaps even heightens the intensity. I liked it very much, and yet I'm all too aware that it was published in 1960 and is thus nearly 50 years behind current research into the turmoil.

  • Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson. Unlike Catton, McPherson is a professional historian, and brings all of the historian's tools to bear in this 900-page 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner. He spends 50 pages just providing an overview of the economic and social state of the United States in mid-century; the footnotes could provide me with years of reading. (A vast survey of the 19th century transportation revolution: just my thing.) I'm only 20 pages in, but loving it so far.

  • Memoirs, by Ulysses S. Grant. A friend reminded me that I could read very directly about one important participant's experience of the war and Appomattox. I plan to at least skim this before the day.

  • The Civil War, by Ken Burns. Okay, not a reading. I missed this in its PBS incarnation; thank goodness for Netflix.
I'll still be at the Sibelius Festival, by the way - but I'll be filing my Appomattox review from Santa Monica.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You Don't Say

In the middle of a harrowing report on efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation in Egypt, comes this:
It is a challenge to get men to give up some of their control over women.


I've blogged before about the problems created by amplifying singers in the theater. I have more to rant about now.

On Saturday, I saw Stephen Sondheim's great opera musical Sweeney Todd at ACT, in the touring version of last year's stripped-down Broadway production, with ten performers who both take the principal roles and play the orchestral instruments.

I love the piece and loved the production, and thought the cast ranged from very good to excellent. David Hess and Judy Kaye are both excellent as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, though neither is quite in the class of the splendid George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, who can be seen in the 1982 film of the stage production.

The production has one huge flaw, and that's the amplification. The ACT Theater is not huge and everyone in the cast is a trained singer. I sat audience left, in the orchestra section, and perceived all the sound as coming from about 20 feet above the stage. The amplification thus removes any sense of people moving on stage.

Why on earth did ACT or the director think this necessary? What's gained?



Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Vocal Chords

I'm assume that Vocal Chords is what Lincoln Center meant when they started this new podcast series, hosted by Deborah Voigt and focussing on the vocal performers featured in Great Performances from Lincoln Center. But, you know, I have the copy-editor gene and had to think about whether it was right, and I'm sure that is not the effect they intended.

The email I got about Vocal Chords says this:
A variety of artists, including baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, soprano Christine Schäfer and tenor Matthew Polenzani, explain their vocal craft. Upcoming podcasts will also feature William Christie, founder of Les Arts Florissants, discussing his upcoming production of Stefano Landi's Il Sant'Alessio. And you'll have the chance to hear Robin Tyson of the King's Singers, explaining the challenges of singing in an a cappella ensemble.

Subscribe today to listen to London Symphony Orchestra conductor Sir Colin Davis discussing Mozart's Requiem, which he considers to be one of the composer's most moving pieces. In the next podcast, available Monday, October 1, Sir Colin Davis will explore Haydn's magnificent Creation.
Certainly sounds good!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sometimes You Just Have to RTF Press Release

I complained a few weeks ago that San Francisco Opera had still not announced the full cast for Appomattox. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

For some reason, I believed the Web site and the glossy associated-events brochure I received a few weeks ago, both of which say "Remaining cast: TBA."

The cast announcement was in July in a press release:

Robert E. Lee: Dwayne Croft / Brian Leerhuber
Ulysses S. Grant: Andrew Shore
Mary Custis Lee: Elza van den Heever
Julia Grant: Rhoslyn Jones
Julia Agnes Lee: Ji Young Yang
Mary Todd Lincoln: Heidi Melton
Elizabeth Keckley Kendall Gladen
Edgar Ray Killen: TBA
T. Morris Chester: Noah Stewart
Abraham Lincoln: Jeremy Galyon
E. Porter Alexander: Chad Shelton

There's still one TBA in there, but that is a great lineup of Adler Fellows and other singers. I heard Chad Shelton in Lysistrata last year and thought him very good.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Note to Alex: you can get Short Ride in a Fast Machine from Boosey & Hawkes.

Alas, my Sanyo Katana takes only polytones, so what's the point.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Opera's Relevance and Korngold

Greg Sandow's posting today about what's wrong with Don Carlo put me in mind of a posting of his from a couple of years back, in which he claimed Doctor Atomic wasn't really very relevant to today; we should all watch The Sopranos instead. Note this passage:
So again, with all respect to Peter and to John, if you want to know why new operas tend to be irrelevant, look no further than this supposedly relevant one. Opera simply isn't an art form anybody looks to for discussion of important issues. Sure, the Adams/Sellars Kinghoffer caused a stir, but not because any large number of even cultured, intellectual people took it seriously as a look at burning current concerns, but only because it broke what some people thought was a taboo.
I meant to blog about this back in 2005, but I find I did not. First things: Doctor Atomic sold out. Apparently some people thought it was worth seeing. Next thing: Did Greg truly not find an opera concerned with weapons of mass destruction and scientists' ethical and moral dilemmas relevant to the modern world?

Matthew Guerrieri has a very fine rant posted about Greg's Don Carlo comments. But I have to respond to this claim:
If you want to know why classical music has receded from our culture, just watch some of Captain Blood, the classic (and wonderfully silly) 1935 pirate film, starring Errol Flynn. It might as well be an opera. Its plot, dialogue, and aesthetic are almost operatic, and so is its score, by Erich Korngold. Which meant that in 1935 you could go to the opera, and go to the movies, and see practically the same thing. So opera was close to everyday life, in a way that it just can't be now.
I can't quite get a handle on exactly what Greg means here: surely not, as Matthew asks, that everybody carried rapiers and dueled on ships in the 1930s. Maybe he means that entertainment forms converged more than they do now? Or is he implying that you could go to the opera house and see lots of Korngold there? (You couldn't, as a look at the archives of any U.S. opera house will tell you.)

I guess what I'm wondering is why it's important that opera and movies should be similar ("close to everyday life" isn't quite what he means). And which operas is he talking about, anyway? The Met's repertory for the 1934-35 season included Aida, Hansel und Gretel, Die Walkuere, Manon, La Gioconda, Siegfried, Lucia di Lammermoor, Faust, La Boheme, Tannhauser, Mignon, La forza del destino, Linda di Chamonix (!), La Traviata, Lohengrin, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra (the house premiere), Cav, Pag, Der Rosenkavalier, Tristan und Isolde, Don Giovanni, In the Pasha's Garden, Goetterdaemmerung, Romeo et Juliette, Madama Butterfly, Die Meistersinger, Das Rheingold, Il Trovatore, Parsifal, Lakme, La Serva Padrona, Don Pasquale, Peter Ibbetson, La Sonnambula, Pelleas et Melisande, and Tosca. (Whew.) How were those operas any more or less like movies then? The staging would have been far more stilted than today, when we are more concerned with naturalism and real acting. Stand-and-sing was more the style in 1935 than now, and you wouldn't have found that style in many films.

Lawrence Tibbett was athletic and might have been able to pull off some Flynn-like stunts, although of course Flynn may have had stunt doubles. But Lauritz Melchior wasn't going to be singing Tristan while swinging from the booms, and anyway, the big news of the season was the debut of a new soprano from Norway, one Kirsten Flagstad, singing in the highly irrelevant operas of Richard Wagner, which, of course, have nothing to teach us about the world, power, or nature.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More Hatto!

The case of the purloined piano recordings just won't die! Intelligent Life magazine has a long article on Joyce Hatto and the fraud perpetrated by her husband William Barrington-Coupe and, presumably, the pianist herself.

Apparently the "Hatto" recordings have been traced to 66 different pianists. (Details are at Farhan Malik's site.) Rod Williams, the author of the Intelligent Life article, has tracked the literature about Hatto and found that some unsubstantiated claims had been made over the years about her training and early career. What a surprise, eh?

I'm especially intrigued by this:
James Inverne, editor of Gramophone magazine, was contacted by two critics who wished to remain anonymous, to warn him off this story.
I wonder if those particular critics would be willing to come forward now.

Update, Sept. 11: Mark Singer's New Yorker article is now on line and a must-read.

Monday, September 10, 2007

George Crumb?

Update: There's no sign in the news or blogosphere or at his home page that Mr. Crumb is anything other than alive and well, so perhaps Jamie at Urban Flute Project heard an untrue rumor.

Earlier: A posting at Urban Flute Project implies that George Crumb has died. I have not found confirmation of this on line - has anyone got more information?

But Where Did He Find Them?

Email received from Lincoln Center, about the Great Performers series there, reports that William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are performing a piece that requires nine countertenors.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

At His Best

Here's a clip of Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, from the 1972 Gala in honor of Rudolph Bing, who had retired as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. It's from Lucia di Lammermoor. They're singing the same language, and they are at their respective vocal peaks, but you'll understand him a lot better.


Tomorrow's Times Week in Review has an article by Daniel J. Wakin about the mystique of the tenor high C, inspired, of course, by the death of Luciano Pavarotti.

Now, I like a good high note or high register as much as anyone, but some operaphiles fetishize high notes to the point of absurdity. If you don't believe me, visit the archives of opera-l and take a look at postings about Zinka Milanov singing the phrase "Enzo adorato," etc. in La Gioconda.

Right in the middle of Wakin's article comes this:
Then, with the rise of Romanticism and a taste for bolder singing — and perhaps a distaste for gelding — the modern tenor voice was born. The first notable tenor to hit a modern high C was the Frenchman Gilbert-Louis Duprez. He sang the note not with a falsetto but with a chest voice, at the first performance of Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell,” in 1831. Rossini was not pleased. The sound, he said, was like “the squawk of a capon with its throat cut.”

But there was no turning back, especially with the heroic tenor voices demanded by Wagnerian opera.
Wagner's tenor roles are notably punishing, but primarily because of their length and the size of the orchestra. If anything, they lie of the low side compared with Italian roles. And just how many high Cs are there in Wagner's tenor roles, anyway?? Are there any?

Getting back to high Cs, Wakin's article is called "High C: The Note that Makes Us Weep." Speak for yourself, Dan. What made me cry in those Pavarotti videos wasn't any particular note, it was his glorious sound, involvement, line, and diction.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

And Speaking of Obits...

We've had some illustrious singers die in the last few months, and I haven't had all that much to say about them. Jerry Hadley I'd at least seen in person, so I could say something about my personal experience of him. I missed Beverly Sills entirely, though I saw Regine Crespin - once - at San Francisco Opera in the mid-1980s. I knew very little about voices and opera at the time and I hardly remember a thing about her performance. I also managed to miss seeing Luciano Pavarotti in person, as I'd missed Birgit Nilsson.

I know Nilsson, Crespin, and Pavarotti on record, of course; Sills somewhat less so because her repertory is not exactly my thing. And, of course, I've followed Pavarotti's career over the last 12 years or so, as his appearances turned into caricatures of what they had once been. Accounts in the press and blogosphere mention recitals where he could barely remember what he was singing and had to rely on the score; for his 1990s Met appearances as Calaf, he had to be helped around the stage by attendants.

He hadn't sung at San Francisco since 1988, and I seem to recall there were issues of some kind that kept him away. I'm tremendously sorry I never saw him, as I'm sorry I missed Nilsson and, especially, Leontyne Price. Records, even great ones, don't tell the whole story, ever; I always want to get a sense of the physical impact of a voice heard in a hall.

For all the variability of his declining years, at his best Pavarotti was unquestionably among the greatest Italian tenors of the 20th century. His plangent, slightly reedy voice couldn't be mistaken for anyone else's. He had Italian style in his bones, from the effortless line to the ring at the top of his range to his splendid diction. Alex Ross describes some of this far better than I can.

But you should listen for yourself. Alex links to several clips of Pavarotti, all of which I heard earlier today. "Che gelida manina" and "Una furtiva lagrima" are perfectly lovely, models of style and beautiful singing. And both give him ample opportunity to charm and beguile the audience, which he could do so well. The audience goes absolutely nuts after "Che gelida manina," and with good reason.

I feared that "E lucevan le stelle," so easily exaggerated or overdone, would bring out the worst in Pavarotti, but no. It's a Golden Age performance, despairing and passionate, dignified, magnificently sung, and it brought me to tears.

Dear Mr. Holland:

Please try to get the facts right when you pen obits of the famous.
  • That first Three Tenors concert wasn't put on for the filthy lucre, but to raise money for Jose Carreras's medical care when he had leukemia.

  • Please stop with the canard about how Domingo's tenor is "manufactured." He's not a high-note singer, but I remind you that no one survives forty years and thousands of performances of the most punishing tenor roles unless he's a tenor - not to mention the fact that Domingo sounds pretty damn good after those forty years. If you don't believe me, check out the career of Ramon Vinay, baritone, who managed to sing tenor roles for about a decade before sliding back whence he'd come. Or look at the career of another great tenor who was originally, mistakenly, though a baritone, one Lauritz Melchior. Or, the great Carlo Bergonzi.

Arrived in the Mail...

...a big, glossy brochure from San Francisco Opera, telling me about all of the events associated with the upcoming premiere of Appomattox.

Both this brochure and the SFO Web site list the cast as follows:
  • Robert E. Lee: Dwayne Croft /Brian Leerhuber (10/24)

  • Ulysses S. Grant: Andrew Shore*

  • Remaining cast: TBA
Really? It's opening in four weeks and the balance of the cast is TBA? Are they still holding auditions, or is it a two-character opera, or what??

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Don't Bother

I'm a big fan of the pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who is a superb interpreter of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mozart. When I read a few years ago that EMI was thinking of having him record some Chopin, I was intrigued but had some trepidation as well.

The CD was published in 2006, and I bought it earlier this year, then waited months to open it. The performances are about what I'd feared: the notes are all there, and everything else is all wrong. Kovacevich's penetrating intelligence and intensity are misapplied to Chopin. In Beethoven, he illuminates form and structure brilliantly - but that's not what Chopin is about. He doesn't seem able to let go and let the music unfold with freedom and flexibility. Instead, his tempos are rigid, and Chopin's filigree and ornamentation sound applied to the line rather than growing naturally from it. There's no charm at all in his playing, though he manages a fine range of charm, wit, and humor when he plays Beethoven. I think Kovacevich just hasn't got much of a feel for how Chopin should go; it's a bad fit with his own artistic temperament. And that is okay: every musician has strengths and weaknesses.

Not long before I opened the CD, I picked up a copy of his early LP of Chopin on eBay. It's still sitting unopened, but maybe I will give it a whirl and see if things were different with Kovacevich and Chopin 30 or more years ago. I won't be able to do any direct comparisons, because there is no overlap between the CD and the LP.

I'm looking forward to whatever he has in the works for the future. I know he's been playing both Berg and Bach on his last couple of tours, and those composers do seem like a good fit for him.