Wednesday, April 7, 2010

D-D-D-Don Giovanni on Disc.

Is the Don tired and worn-out, or are we still trying to catch up? Many twentieth/twenty-first century interpretations have left this opera buffa rather humorless, as demonstrated by Marthe Keller's disastrously boring production at the Met in 2009. Am I crazy, or is this opera constantly re-writing itself, remaining oddly unfinished? The second act feels like a clumsy Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale-- at every twisted turn I wonder if Leporello really will take Giovanni's cloak or if Ottavio will say, "Hey, cruel one, get over it!" Where is the ghostly puppetmaster hand of Lorenzo da Ponte leading these frantic, foolish and deeply flawed characters? They struggle, but what do they sacrifice? Consequently, what do they achieve? I'm asking a lot of questions. Is the answer already before me? If so, it's in the music. Because the music is the thing. Maybe I've never actually seen Don Giovanni, but I'm pretty sure I've heard it.


Superior Studio Efforts (in Italian)

Roger Norrington's 1993 [VIRGIN VERITAS]: As an academic resource it is invaluable, here presenting the standard Prague version first and then adding Vienna supplements on its third disc; as a performance, however, it is by no means generic, stale or unengaging. Particularly surprising are the performances of Amanda Halgrimson as Anna and Lynne Dawson as Elvira, but the entire cast is outstanding. Ensemble work (the heart of any Mozart opera) is stunning, and Norrington's pacing errs appropriately on the brisk side.

Daniel Barenboim's 1992 [ERATO]: Ferruccio Furlanetto actually pulls off the "Great Mozart Switcheroo", which is impressive, but I like him better as Leporello. Uwe Heilmann did some brilliant work in the early '90s, and his Ottavio here is a mini-miracle: in terms of studio performances he is rivaled only by Alva for Giulini, which is all the more impressive when one considers his superb Tamino (Solti's Decca Flute) and Belmonte (Hogwood's delicious Abduction). There's a painfully misguided notion that Tamino has to be Arthurian and heroic while Ottavio sits aside as some Hamlet-esque "repressed homosexual" -- which is preposterous, of course, but if anything it's the opposite. Heilmann brings a three-dimensional, "princely" nobility to both, without sacrificing the events of the drama. Otherwise, a merely adequate recording.

Herbert von Karajan's 1986 [DG]: This set inspires a lot of vitriol from Karajan bashers, perhaps deservedly, but I'll never understand how it could be "over-hyped." Possibly because Karajan used (almost) the same cast -- though with Vienna's Philharmonic, not Berlin's -- for the July 1987 Salzburg Festival version. Nobody with a brain would claim that he had more success with this opera than he did with his EMI Mozart sets in the early '50s, nearly forty years before this one. The difference between young and old Herbie can be summed up in one word: spontaneity. This Don sounds as if it should be playing at mid-volume in an empty museum. From the neck up, the singing is quite beautiful, but totally lacking guts or loins.

Carlo Maria Giulini's 1961 [EMI]: Be wary of naysayers! This remarkable studio recording has drama, passion, sex -- the whole experience we dream of (and perhaps never acquire?) in the opera house. If you were to own one and only one recording of the Don, then I suppose it should be this one. This was one of Walter Legge's finest achievements, a testament to Giulini's musical and dramatic prowess, with the most consistently satisfying cast on records: Schwarzkopf's signature Elvira, Alva's alluring Ottavio (still the best studio performance), Taddei's funny and noble Leporello, Sutherland's stunning debut as Anna (was she ever more exciting?), Cappuccilli's definitive Masetto, and Waechter's criminally underrated Don, whose "Fin ch'han dal vino" alone is a top-ten moment of recorded opera. Seriously, folks: a masterpiece.

Ferenc Fricsay 's 1959 [DG]: Anybody who believes Harding (below) to be a daring iconoclast should rediscover Fricsay, whose Don is simply lethal. Just listen to "Don Ottavio, son morta!" in the first act -- at break-neck speed! -- and you'll hear what I mean. The cast, though excellent, sounds distractingly Teutonic most of the time (e.g., "qvesto!"), immediately relegating this endlessly insightful effort to Silver, or even Bronze, status. But for real Don collectors, this set's a must, not just because it features some of the best (if not the best) orchestral playing on any Mozart opera recording: under Fricsay, the late-'50s Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin produce gorgeous sounds, especially in the delicate passages (the woodwinds in "Ah! taci, ingiusto core!" make me weak). The singing, too, is highly musical and at times wonderfully theatrical. Sometimes I'm not sure what to think of Fischer-Dieskau's Don; certainly he was the major attraction to the set when it was first issued, and it's a nicely sung, if completely one-dimensional, portrayal. One may argue, though, that Don Giovanni is the most static character in the drama, so the singing is all that matters. Anyway, it's the set I keep coming back to -- and if you love it, as I do, check out Fricsay's Flute with the same orchestra. Exemplary and underrated.

Josef Krips's 1954 [DECCA]: For Krips's outstanding leadership of the Vienna Philharmonic, this recording is an indispensable document; for its woefully uneven cast, less so. Hilde Gueden is occasionally too refined as Zerlina, but her singing is radiantly beautiful (the best on disc?), particularly in the famous "Là ci darem la mano," truly everything Molly Bloom would've ever wanted. That said, the major event of the duet (i.e. the wooing) doesn't really happen. Three major players on this recording, Lisa della Casa (Elvira), Cesare Siepi (Don), and Fernando Corena (Leporello), sang with much more insight at Salzburg (below), but are still very attractive on this set; Corena, in fact, is more reserved in the studio and does not resort to Tajo-esque antics. Lots of people seem to think Danco is the jewel of the set, which I've always found head-scratching. She sings beautifully and accurately (as always) without adding much insight. Her Ottavio is Anton Dermota, whose journey in the role, at least as preserved on records, is tenuous: his voice was in good shape for Karajan's 1950 studio Flute (an unforgettable performance), then began to decline; he sang adequately at the 1953 Salzburg festival, passably the year after, and rather pitifully here in the studio. He sang Ottavio a lot and must have liked the role, but he never had the breath to get through "Il mio tesoro," so he wasn't even suited for the Prague version of this opera. Dermota was a brilliant singer and distinctly Viennese, and it is unfortunate that he did not leave us a satisfactory Ottavio on records.

Hans Swarowsky's 1950 [PREISER]: This is one of the strangest opera recordings ever made. Though enormously insightful, it is far from a pleasant listening experience. Mariano Stabile was one of the most celebrated singer-actors of his day and by all accounts a charming Don, but his performance here is marred by wretched technique (the intrusive H's are h-h-horrid!). The rest of the famous cast is a nightmarish experiment: Grob-Prandl's big female spider towers over Handt's (slightly more respectable) male spider -- the singing is even worse than what this image conjures up -- and Konetzni and Poell remain two of the most overrated singers who ever conquered the great houses of Europe. Still, whenever I need a good chuckle I turn to the Metropolitan Opera Guide's description of Hedda Heusser: the "boy soprano" Zerlina. How perfectly drole!

The Liveliest Live Recordings (Ever?)

The output of live recordings (they were all bootlegs!) remastered from various sources should be the gems of any opera collector's display cabinet.

Daniel Harding's 1999 [VIRGIN] @ Aix-en-Provence: True, this recording only hints at the wonder of the performance-- directed by Peter Brook-- but the music makes a powerful statement. Harding breaks down barriers, dusts off old Salzburger cobwebs and reveals a lot of youthful energy inherent in Mozart's music. The cast is uneven, especially Remigio and Larsson, but everyone's totally alert and absorbed in the musical moment. So it's probably the fourth -- fifth -- sixth choice, but who cares? For connoisseurs, it's a must. Inimitible details astound throughout: just listen to the way Harding & Co. conclude the wooing scene: loose and a little silly, with a swift, surprising conclusion reminiscent of the old Raisa-Rimini records. You can hear an exclamation point in the music; really infectious! And Peter Mattei -- dare I say he is my favorite Don ever? Schrott may look good shirtless, but his singing lacks Mattei's spirit -- and loins. Mattei's voice is open and responsive, and his acting is simply ferocious. Harding is the perfect partner-in-crime. Like many young musicians, though, they pull off several mini-miracles here and there, but the big picture isn't really in focus. Still, this was their Don, not someone else's, and music is an imperfect art on record. It is the mysterious third dimension -- inside the theatre-- that can never be captured or reproduced.

Dmitri Mitropoulos's 1956 [SONY] @ The Salzburg Festival: If you want crisp stereo sound, look elsewhere; if you want the best Mozart singing of opera's Golden Age, the buck stops here! July 23, 1956 was a magical summer night at Salzburg, here preserved as my favorite live recording of anything ever made. The performance lives and breathes -- for anyone who loves opera, an in-the-moment, electric listening experience that is in a class by itself. Contrary to what many (idiotic!) reviewers will tell you, this cast is actually very different from Furtwängler's 1953 (below) and the 1954, and much, much better. As mentioned above, three of its great stars, Siepi, della Casa and Corena, are much better on stage than in the studio (at least in this opera). Corena does a lot more acting (and singing) off his voice than in Krips's set (above), which can be irritating, but it has a most delightful effect with the audience -- as a comedian here probably the equal of Baccaloni, though without his seemingly endless vocal resources. Elisabeth Grümmer, the greatest lyric soprano of her generation, is featured here in one of her signature roles at the height of its dramatic potency. Unlike Furty, Mitropoulos does not subject her Anna to uncomfortably slow tempi, offering more spontaneity in her vocalism and consequently more refinement in her acting. Amazing. Streich's Zerlina is spot-on -- somewhere in between Gueden's regal perfection and Mildmay's Provencial daftness. A pleasure. Leopold Simoneau's Don Ottavio, though, is the gold star performance. If I may borrow adjectives from Sviatoslav Richter's description of Callas: "[He's] movement itself, imperious and peremptory." Oh, to have been there! Truly, the audience knew they were witnessing something special, and they may be my favorite aspect of the performance: as another character in the drama, they applaud so precisely, so rhythmically, with such sensitivity to the score, that the musical journey -- the legato, if you will -- is kept intact. The time, the place, the people--the moment! By no means your only Don or even the first choice, but who's keeping score? It is beyond comparison and therefore beyond rating or ranking.

Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1953 [ORFEO, et al.] @ The Salzburg Festival: Not terribly giocoso, but oh so dramatic -- surging with dark spirit and Romantic splendor. The cast, however, is incredibly uneven. Otto Edelmann is plainly awful as Leporello. Erna Berger, too, is clearly past her prime (but a real trooper). Siepi's Don is a little more polished for Krips and Mitropoulos, but who cares? He gives the same satisfactory performance every time. Similarly, I prefer Schwarzkopf's brilliant studio effort to this Elvira. Elisabeth Grümmer glimmers as Anna despite Furty's lethally slow tempi. She compensates by delivering a gut-wrenching "Don Ottavio, son morta" and a thrilling finish on "Non mi dir" (what else is Anna good for?). Once more we encounter the Dermota Dilemma: lovely and nuanced, of course, but in the end just adequate. The gold star belongs to Arie's Commendatore, who truly inhabits Furty's dark and dingy Seville. The best "Don Giovanni, a Cenar Teco M'invitasi" I've ever heard. The entire performance seems under a veil: one supposes that Furty & Co. had to get WWII -- the most devastating event in human history -- out of their system, so this remains the essential bottom-heavy interpretation of the Don. At the end of the day I prefer this 1953 to the 1954 for many reasons: sound-wise it is generally better, particularly on this re-release.

Hans Rosbaud's 1950 [GOLDEN MELODRAM - "Connaisseur"] @ Aix-en-Provence: The surprising joy and spontaneity of this production shines through the wretched sound, random noise (was the set being built as they sang?), and somewhat incoherent conducting. There's a marvelous sense of amateurism that is refreshing in Mozart, especially when one compares it to the Swarowsky from virtually the same year (above). The pathetic fallacy, too, has an effect: the month of July, with its warm, summery, vibrant feel of Spanish amor and mojo. Emmy Loose is an ideal soubrette, as she is in any of the Mozarts (Cosi, Flute, etc.). Renato Capecchi is a surprisingly charming Don, and Suzanne Danco's turn as Elvira (she was Anna for Krips) is most effective. Marcello Cortis is exceedingly buffoonish and occasionally delightful as Leporello. His histrionics venture somewhat into Marx Brothers territory (his reveal in the sextet is outlandish even by Commedia standards), but his singing isn't bad. In fact, it reminds me of how influenced I've been by Teutonic diction (e.g., his extra syllable in "mille-e-tre" adds a certain flair and personality). Arie, my favorite Commendatore, is glorious, though timid compared to his 1953 Salzburg performance. This recording also features Leopold Simoneau near the beginning of his journey as Don Ottavio, which alone merits serious attention. His "Dalla sua pace" is a little better than "Il mio tesoro"; he crafts both to perfection, of course, in the '56 Salzburg (above). Words escape me here. There is a special quality about his singing, a comfortable, straightfoward ease that makes his Mozart unique. Very French (via Canada, of course). Once again it is most interesting to note the audience noise captured in these old festival recordings: in Salzburg, they were considerate musicians; here, in Aix, it's as if they've never heard opera before, because a few enthusiastic members yell out inappropriately. Another instance of the delight and ever-so-slightly amateurish quality of the performance.

Fritz Busch 's 1936 [NAXOS] - technically not "live" at all, but recorded on stage @ Glyndebourne: In many ways this remains the best conducted Don in the gramophone, and certainly the most influential. And what a cast! Baccaloni's "Catalogue" may be the most sublimely perfect reading of a Mozart aria I've ever heard, and his singing in the second act is unapproached on records. It is important to note that the phonics at Glyndebourne were absurdly advanced for the time (anyone who has ever tried to enjoy La Scala performances from the late '50s -- which sound as if they were recorded by Playskool-- know what I mean). All the better for Mozart lovers. Brownlee, Helletsgruber and von Pataky also give benchmark performances. Unrivaled for almost twenty years before Krips and Mitropoulos, and still a mighty Don. The NAXOS edition features some other vintage Mozart singing from as far back as 1926, a treasure trove of great singing in the old style (read: with COMEDY). For real fans, a must.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Call of the Tradizionalisti.

In the operatic world, to be controversial is to be per tutte le stagioni. Who cares if it's great art? Does it sell? Peter Gelb may be mad, yet there is method in't: the new Tosca got boos and he says, "Get over it." He's a risktaker and I like that. Even so, there are lessons to be learned from rowdy "traditionalists." Iconoclasm has always been en vogue, but when did traditionalism get lumped in with the GOP? All right, so they boo. Maybe the production stinks. I mean, c'mon, nobody's gonna riot. This isn't the WWE. Let the snobs have some fun! Booing is a misunderstood and sadly underrated artform. To boo isn't merely to say, "I paid money for this, jerk!" It is to proclaim, "I think, I care! Blood's rushing through my veins, for chrissake!" (Besides, our American cultural predisposition for the standing ovation is already embarrassingly unrefined.) Apparently they're booing the production, not the singing. See the trend? There was a time when conductors sat with their backs to the orchestra; beautiful singing was non plus ultra . Has the pendulum swung too far the other way?

Gelb suggests that all classical music used to be pop, which is not completely inaccurate (meanwhile Mozart is rolling in his markerless grave). Pop is new; for us it's gotta be hip, too. Does controversy accompany the hip factor? Not necessarily. In fact, if your aim is to be hip, then you may be inciting the wrong kind of controversy. Audiences don't know what they want, though, and Gelb is right, even if he doesn't know it. What we crave is theatricality: concise storytelling, told with conviction. Truly, it should be our only "tradition." Not to be clever and cool, but to be relevant. Opera's been dead for a long time; so has God, Philosophy, Capitalism, and all my hopes of ever scoring with Zack Morris. Was it always fiction? We want so badly for the Holy Grail to be literal. There's nothing new, kids; there is only now.

These days we want to "update" the arts -- the design, in particular. Appropriately, the verb does not imply improvement, but restoration. Freshness cannot be forced. The process is organic; indeed, many operas lend themselves to it naturally. For instance, Andalusian frills may be fun for Figaro, but they aren't indispensable. The major events of the drama are class conflict and power struggle-- ubiquitous themes, always relevant. The territory becomes murkier, however, with an opera like Tosca: Napoleanic Wars, a Bernhardt-esque diva, a passionate revolutionary, etc.--specific constraints that may seem anachronistic to us. The setting, too, is a little less generic. Nineteenth-Century Rome actually plays another character in Sardou's drama; the opulence of the age gives Tosca grandeur without making the singer-actors do extra work. A modern setting also robs the opera of its inherent sexiness. And sex sells. What's sexy about brick? Folks get frisky around brick every day. But an ornate church?--the forbidden Sant'Andrea della Valle? All that Catholic guilt and lust? It should stage itself. Perhaps Zeffirelli's version remained popular because the audience accepted the decadence readily and focused on the singing, which is of course opera's raison d'être. Admittedly, the title isn't Roma, circa 1900. It's Tosca's show, and she is a modern woman for every age; she is an individual, three-dimensional. Production design isn't unimportant, but it is supplementary.

Want something really fresh? Commission new work. Nobody'll care about the design. Don't upset the "traditionalists"-- they donate the moolah. Tread lightly: we're meddling with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rossini, il mio primo amore.

I was nearly seventeen when I began listening to opera and enjoying it. As fate decreed, it was at the public library in downtown Marietta, Georgia, on a summer afternoon not unlike this one, that I stumbled on Alceo Galliera's 1957 recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia, and it left the lasting impression that music could make me truly happy. There's something about those Seville operas that is so supremely summer -- so warm, so amorous, like dusty terracotta or syrupy hibiscus. Few can resist; but is it monotonous? Today the Barber is far from neglected: stellar productions abound, especially here in New York. On disc, Jesús López-Cobos's vibrant 1993 recording featuring Jennifer Larmore, Raul Giménez and Håkan Hagegård, among others, quickly became a top recommendation, and introduced a new standard for modern opera performance. One might argue that Galliera's, despite producer Walter Legge's idiosyncratic cuts and casting, was a dominant influence; its subtle, insightful humor is what makes it unique, and worth writing about now.

For better or worse, Maria Callas is the major attraction to the set, as she is on countless other mediocre recordings. It is mentioned frequently that her best roles were Violetta, Norma, Anna Bolena, and Lady Macbeth, followed then by Lucia, Medea, and Amina, et al., according to one's own taste. I tend to agree. Rosina, however, may be the most like Callas -- or the idea of "La Callas" -- than any other heroine, if only for her cunning and intelligence. It doesn't surprise me, though, that she made a mess of it on stage. Compare it to the La Scala production of La traviata from the 1955 season: Visconti made bold, daring choices in design and staging, and he doted on Callas's Violetta, the star part; the Barber revival was run-of-the-mill, with no one to nurture Callas's comic skills. What we have on records is a singular vision of the character Rosina, but it's only a sketch. In his brilliant biography Maria Meneghini Callas, Michael Scott suggests that the diva had no sense of humor at all, which may or may not be true. But even Mr. Scott would admit that many people fail to understand why Rosina or the entire opera is precisely funny in the first place. Situations are funny, not a performer's act of "being funny"; in fact, Beaumarchais's characters, like Seinfeld & Co., find themselves in humorous situations based on their own penchant for exasperation. That said, many will dismiss the recording based on Callas's rapid vocal decline. It may be true that her voice was not as impressive in 1957 as it was in 1954 for her Coloratura Lyric session with Serafin, featuring an inspired "Una voce poco fa," perhaps her best singing ever in the studio. Even so, 1957 was not a bad year for Callas: she sang magnificently in revivals of Anna Bolena at La Scala and La Sonnambula at Cologne and Edinburgh. As with her Amina, she gives Rosina three dimensions, a journey with an arch: in the first act, her "Ecco qua! Sempre un'istoria" is genuinely sorrowful, and her "Ah, qual colpo inaspettato" is, as the words describe, delirious with nervous happiness. I must clarify that it is the specificity with which she approaches these general emotions (sadness, elation, apprehension) that makes her a great actress. Lots of silly people think they need more video footage to see what her acting must have been like. Just listen! Specificity, timing, musicality, sense of self within the text -- that's what acting is, and you can hear it on records.

Callas is joined by the young Luigi Alva and fellow thespian Tito Gobbi -- still one of the most insightful Barber trios. Alva sounded incredibly charming and sexy (despite nasality) in juvenile roles, particularly Fenton in Falstaff. He was also the Almaviva of his generation (even if he never sang "Cessa di più resistere"). Later on, I've noticed how Alva's singing became increasingly "ROSSINIAN!" -- that is, playing the idea of the Rossini style rather than singing it with conviction. It happens a lot with interpretations of classical material: conveying "style" (i.e. attitude) becomes the overall goal, which is ultimately untruthful or, in the case of Rossini, unfunny. Sometimes it's unnoticeable except by comparison. In Alva's case, he wasted a lot of time tweaking a portrayal that, in 1957, had all the impetuousness the young nobleman requires. I can only hope that fellow Peruvian Juan Diego Flórez will keep Almaviva's torch burning ardently; his interpretation, though, which is simultaneously vivid and flavorless, is the subject of another blog entry. Betchacan'twait.

Tito Gobbi is, as always, terrific; no one portrays Figaro's propensity for mischief and adventure better than he. A singer-actor who found lightness in every character, he negotiated the sometimes gray territory between tragedy and comedy with ease. In doing so, he made those around him -- including the humorless Callas(?) -- even better. A delightful example of this is the duet "Dunque io son," which is an all-time favorite of mine: it is heartwarming, funny, and gorgeous to listen to all at once. Perhaps Gobbi should be remembered as an actor-singer instead of the other way around; it is for this reason that his Figaro and his Rigoletto, in particular, are so completely absorbing. One might argue that he and Callas represent the last of the "singing actors" à la Chaliapin. These artists lived and worked during a time when good singing and good acting weren't separate ideas, but were intertwined. To say a singer acts with "feeling" or "emotion" probably means they perform with spontaneity, thus communicating the real joy of the drama in the music. All the same, neither Gobbi nor Callas was ever noted for purity or mellifluousness; their power of the will far exceeded the power of the voice.

Subsequent recordings such as the 1993 López-Cobos boast stronger supporting players, but Legge's crew offer more than a few surprises. Zaccaria's Basilio holds its own among a small and exceptional group of peers; Ollendorf's Bartolo, though a tad crass and "Teutonic," is occasionally very funny and even a little sardonic (I happen to love his "Che noia!" in the "Pace e gioia" scene). The rest of the cast is fine. Galliera is a terribly obscure figure but his conducting of the Philharmonia is brilliantly exciting and never ever forced. I'm sure there's more, but I must rush to a close and say : one mustn't neglect other Rossini -- L'italiana, La Cenerentola, Armida and Semiramide, to name a few -- but Il barbiere is a gem -- a marvel -- a bright, sunny Spanish afternoon. The Met is reviving Sher's production this season, and I look forward to attending.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dear Madam, So Sorry to Inform You That You're a Hack; or, La mort d'Interpétation?

This evening Mary Zimmerman’s production of Bellini's La Sonnambula at the Met will be broadcast live in HD worldwide. It's the perfect venue for Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay: they’re sexy, glamorous, born to be on the big screen and in big sound. True twenty-first century opera stars in an unfortunate twenty-first century production. I guess you'd call Zimmerman's staging "controversial" -- like her Lucia last season -- which is an arbitrary word I've grown to despise. I'd rather call it: overwrought, nonsensical, amateurish, hacked out to the maxxx, or even just plain bad.

For many operagoers in NYC, this is so two weeks ago. The whole affair has been covered nicely in this cool blog, the Financial Times, and the Sun-Times, among others. Everyone has an opinion. I do, too. Yawn. Don't get me wrong: I saw it last Saturday and had a nice evening out. Dessay and Flórez are a mighty pair -- my gosh, the crowd went wild a few times, even waving a gigantic Peruvian flag after "Ah, perchè non posso odiarti” in Act II. Real Bellini fireworks! Whoever said bel canto was kaput?

So what's the problem? It's a silly opera! This production is certainly everything Vinnie B. could've ever wanted or imagined for his trifle little bel canto semiseria -- “famously light and, even for the world of opera, a little incredible,” states Zimmerman in her Program Notes. Don't worry, she’s fixed all that.

Synopsis: Mary Zimmerman’s new production is set in a contemporary rehearsal room, where a traditional production of La Sonnambula,set in a Swiss village, is being prepared. In that rehearsal space, all the events and relations that Bellini’s characters experience also happen to the rehearsing performers in their own “real” lives. In this staging, Amina and Elvino are played by two singers (also named Amina and Elvino) who are, like their fictional counterparts, lovers. The chorus constitutes the population of the Swiss village, and Lisa, the innkeeper of La Sonnambula,is the stage manager.

"Incredible," indeed. Here's the deal: this isn’t “interpretation.” Not by a long shot. Mary Zimmerman’s production of La Sonnambula is the anti-interpretation. There is nothing in Romani’s libretto or Bellini’s music from which the play-within-a-play “concept” was interpreted. It was merely attached -- rather carelessly -- to a dramatic work that doesn’t sustain it, creating an entirely new set of obstacles on top of existing ones, effectively placing us in square negative two.

Of course, this ain't nothing new. It’s standard procedure! Setting Shakespeare in the Wild West or giving Molière a colorful Saved By the Bell makeover. B- drivel at best. Hack directors shoot themselves in the foot before they even start rehearsals and then waste time poring over details. If you wanna do a play, then you gotta love language. Same thing with opera: you’ve gotta love the language of music. But what's true in music is true in storytelling: you gotta hit all the notes. Same thing with the events, the relationships, the drama. The basics you follow before you break a single rule. I'm not saying you need cowbells and Lindt bars to do La Sonnambula (it can -- and should! -- be done a thousand different ways), but I need to care about the characters and their journey.

What makes for marketable interpretation these days? Here’s a buzz word: cleverness. Delicious, decadent (Nietzsche’s word), Family Guy-esque and oh-so-blissfully-unaware-of-actual-human-emotion, randomly awkward yet smartly sardonic and even ironic (in the true sense of the word): too cool, too calculated, too, too clever. Cleverness can fix everything! All this frivolity -- this “lightness” -- these dated, unsophisticated art makers of our past.

Do we really think we're more sophisticated? That people in the past lacked any kind of humor? Zimmerman must see them as black-and-white, soot-faced, standing in line for sugar and dying in a Holocaust or something that must not resemble our culture. Did she even read the chorus parts? They’re hilarious. So much self-awareness, so much ridiculous Commedia joy. And Count Rodolfo’s explanation of Amina’s sleepwalking: laugh-out-loud! Don’t pretend the 1830s cast-- and audience! -- wasn’t aware of its own shallowness. C’mon! These people knew good art! They had Shakespeare and Cervantes! Not to mention Mozart, for chrissake: they at least knew good opera! So it’s "light." What’s wrong with that? Not everything can be King Lear, nor should it be. If you don’t like it, then don’t stage it. No opera is realistic! That’s what opera is: huge, sweeping metaphor. Where’s the imagination? The love? The life?

Worst of all, none of it even matters. Because Ms. Zimmerman is not smarter than Vincenzo Bellini, as much as she probably fancies herself to be. After all these years La Sonnambula is still in the repertoire. Why? Listen to the music. Bellini knew this. His whole goddamn creative team knew this. The music will overcome everything else. It isn't merely “beautiful and tuneful” (so dismissive -- so American -- UGH!); the music is the thing. Zimmerman writes that La Sonnambula hasn’t been staged at the Met in 36 years and thinks the “light” plot is to blame. Outrageous! Does she think someone on the artistic staff penciled it into the season because her staging idea was such a brilliant Bridges-of-Fucking-Amsterdam puzzle solution to Bellini? No! It’s because it is difficult music and even great singers can’t manage it. They booked Flórez and Dessay. That's why. IDIOT.

For more info on Opera in HD go here. Wanna see it live? Bellini's La Sonnambula runs till April 3rd (Barry Banks replaces Flórez as Elvino on the last performance).

Open plea to Peter Gelb: I beg you, please please please tear up Zimmerman's contract and find someone -- anyone! the ninja monkey! -- to direct Rossini's Armida in 2010 and stop the insanity!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hot Messe!

I've been on a "Sacred" music kick lately. Maybe it's Eschatological.

I really like John Eliot Gardiner's recording of Bach's Mass in B minor. I'm wondering if I should be satisfied with it?

I'm hardly an expert on Fauré (and French music in general) but Herreweghe's reading of the Requiem is superb, and I'm thinking about laying down the big bucks for his Matthäuspassion. Even though I couldn't live without my Furtwängler, it's incomplete and with less-than-decent mono sound. Actually I wouldn't mind having all of Bernstein's, even though it's in English; Donaldson Bell's rendition of "Make Thee Clean" still moves me to tears and beyond.

In both cases: what about Klemperer?

Bernstein seems to be a controversial top choice for Mozart's C Minor, and while I don't hate it, I'm eager to hear Gardiner's. Get this: since it's on period instruments, the tuning is different (baroque A 415 vs. modern A 440). By our standards, C minor was actually B minor. Amazing!

I'm fine with my Klemperer/Schwarzkopf/Fischer-Dieskau Brahms, but (of course) I'd like to hear the Kempe/Grümmer (also with Fidi). Recommendations?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

(Pretty) Good Friday Music

I'm exploring the varied output of live recordings from Hans Knappertsbusch's thirteen-year stint with Parsifal at Bayreuth. My digital Barenboim is first-rate , but after listening to an old LP of the 1951 Kna, I'm craving more. My question is: how could it get any better?

Apparently it does. The standout seems to be the 1962, which is now part of the excellent Philips 50 series. It's got a great cast, and I'm sure it's worth the hype. I can predict, though, that the cast is just as good (or better!) on the 1964. Is the 1962 better because Philips says so? And again, how can you beat the 1951 cast? I'll find out for myself. When I get around to it.

Also, I'm quasi-obsessed with Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's visionary 1982 film version, despite some head-scratching shifts in Act II. The Flower Maidens' scene is overwhelming, and the Clever/Minton combo for Kundry is perfection. Minton reminds me (yet again) to seek out more contributions from Kubelik. Man, I'm an uncultured hack.

This is 'bout as geeky as I get.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Did Rudolf Schock ruin the greatest opera set of all time? Not really, but yeah, kind of.

EMI, please re-issue this. I recently purchased the complete 5LP set on eBay, and it has changed my life. Kempe's 1956 Die Meistersinger might be the all-time best recording in the catalog -- maybe of any opera ever captured in the studio.

I'm not sure yet. Here's what I do know: Kempe was a consummate Wagnerian in every way. He's full of warmth and charm, of spirit and occasion, of clearly communicated theatricality -- the whole nine yards -- without blurring into exaggerated sentimentality. The late '50s BPO is flexible, firm, authoritative, and yet refined. When I was first getting to know this opera, Karajan's second recording really hit the spot; it's still satisfactory, especially in its fine choral work and exquisite pair of lovers in young Donath and Kollo. But Karajan's overbright, overly polished and at times turgid reading can be pretty dull. Kempe's so-called "conversational" approach (I like to call it "no-nonsense") allows for all of Wagner's varied changes of mood, thought and tone to unfold so beautifully, so specifically, that I'm able to enter into the human experience of it all. And hear it for what it's really worth.

The jewel of Kempe's set is, of course, Elisabeth Grümmer as Eva. In a lot of ways she was the Maria Callas of the lyric German soprano roles: she sings and acts with spontaneity and forward motion, clarity of phrasing, an inherent sense of overall structure and timing -- it's unbelievable. I can't say enough about her. She's the real deal. The rest of the cast is (mostly) stunning: Unger, Höffgen, Frick, Neidlinger, Clam, & Co. provide superior support, and Frantz delivers an interpretively competent, well-sung Sachs.

I haven't heard all of the highly praised Kubelik (now on a new Arts Archive release), so I won't get ahead of myself. I anticipate that Kubelik's greatest strength, however, is Kempe's biggest setback: Walther. And Sandor Konya's Walther, specifically. Rudolf Schock is merely passable on the Kempe; he doesn't ruin the set by any means, but he lacks passion and spontaneity (alongside Grümmer it's doubly painful), and his singing in the Prize Song leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, he has his moments, especially early on, but I prefer even Kollo's more impetuous and athletic style to Schock's general and unfocused characterization. What's infuriating is that Konya worked with Grümmer just THREE years after Kempe's Meistersinger, at Bayreuth in 1959! I know, I know: record label politics are tough. But, wow, here I sit, fully half-a-century later, wondering what could have been. In any case, it's a pity that Konya didn't receive more studio attention.

But none of this matters at all. Why? Because the Kempe is OUT OF PRINT. Other listeners will want to own Karajan's 1951 (beware of Hans Hopf), Solti's first and possibly second, and maybe even the Jochum (which I can't stand, even with a great supporting cast and fabulous conducting). That's all fine. I MUST hear the Kubelik and then I'll know for sure. Right now Kempe is my fav. Have I said enough? Yes. Happy Valentine's.