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Maria Callas

Sunday, April 30, 2017


parterre box

April 25

Bells are ringing

parterre boxWith the world’s focus on France this week (and if it isn’t, it should be!), it seems appropriate to offer you a staple of the French repertoire: Lakmé, the oriental fantasia by Léo Delibes. This 1980 performance from Dallas stars Ruth Welting, Alfredo Kraus, and Paul Plishka, conducted by Nicola Rescigno. Lakmé, composed for American coloratura Marie van Zandt, scored 500 performances at the Opéra Comique in the 26 years after its 1883 premiere, and 1000 by 1931. The opera quickly spread throughout the world and had its premiere at the old Met in its first decade in 1892 staring van Zandt. A new production in 1932 was a triumph for Lily Pons, who sang 50 complete performances (excluding galas and concerts) until the opera’s last appearance by the Met in 1947, missing only two shows in the 15-year run. She sang the role for opening night of the 1946/1947 season, and the program for her 25th anniversary with the company in 1956 included – to no one’s surprise – “Où va la jeune Hindoue?” also know as the “L’Air des clochettes.” It was her RCA Victrola 78 recorded on 8 December 1930 that turned me on to the opera. I had to wait till September 1984 to see a fully-staged Lakmé: a New York City Opera production starring Gianna Rolandi, Barry McCauley, Susanne Marsee, and Harry Dworchak. It hasn’t been done anywhere near me since then (Wiener Staatsoper last performed it in 1925). Ruth Welting had one of those amazing, almost-freakish voices which soared comfortably to an A in alt, a startlingly perfect trill, and incredibly clear articulation of all those little notes on the way up there. She sang the Lucia mad scene in the original key of F major. She performed all the standard coloratura roles in her years at NYCO, as well as 16 seasons at the Met, mostly as die Könegin der Nacht, Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and some Zerbinettas. By the age of 46, with 20+ years of a busy schedule behind her, her voice started to show some strain and she quit singing to take up studies of government and foreign affairs. She was diagnosed with cancer in early 1991 and died a few months later at age 51. Alfred Kraus had a legendary, worldwide, well-documented career that spanned over 40 years with a relatively small repertoire. He is often given as an example of the theory that once you find your Fach and a few roles of which you are master, don’t start dibbling with heavier repertoire. Kraus was a textbook light lyric tenor who never ventured very far away from Nemorino, Roméo, Tonio, Ernesto, Massenet’s Des Grieux, and Edgardo. His heaviest roles were, most likely, Hoffmann and Werther. He made his operatic debut in 1956; just two years later he performed Alfredo to the Violetta of Maria Callas in what we all know as “The Lisbon Traviata.” Here’s some fascinating trivia: Kraus made the first of his 136 Met performances as the Duca in Rigoletto alongside Cornell MacNeil and Roberta Petersat the old house in January 1966; he ended his tenure with the company in the same role in November 1994 with Paolo Gavanelli and Sumi Jo, sounding much the way he had 28 years earlier. He returned in April 1996 at age 68 for the 25th anniversary of James Levine and delivered an unforgettable “Pourquoi me réveiller?” He died in Madrid in 1999 at age 71.

Iron Tongue of Midnight

April 10

McGrath on Fleming

Almost ten years ago, Charles McGrath had an article in the NY Times about Anna Netrebko that irritated me so much that I think I stopped reading somewhere on the first page, after he stated or implied that before the modern era, no opera singers could act. Okay, maybe Callas? But otherwise, acting was an art discovered only by recent singers. Now he's got a big gushy piece about Renée Fleming. I have to note that alone of the three pieces that were published this week about her, his more or less says that her upcoming Met appearances as the Marschallin will be her last stage appearances. Well, that's been the rumor for the last year or two, plus the other articles say she will continue to appear in recital. And if you look at her own schedule, you'll see that they are her only stage appearances there. Otherwise, it's concerts, galas, and recitals as far as the eye can see. There's an awful lot to disagree with in the Fleming article: her departure is only a watershed if you think she sells out every ticket in the house (I am not convinced) or if you think she is an extremely important singer. Well, look at the repertory she has sung, which has been central lyric roles, very little of it unusual. She has sung little new or contemporary music. She hasn't had the huge and varied repertory that some singers have. There's a photo of her singing "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah - did she ever appear in the complete opera? I'm willing to bet not, especially since the article states outright that in the 90s she and her management team made a decision for her to limit her repertory. Netrebko and Kaufmann sell out the house, no doubt, especially Kaufmann (though we will probably never see him in the US again). I'm pretty sure that it was Fleming's own publicists who managed to tag her as "the people's diva," and who managed to get her on the Super Bowl and lots of TV shows. That's they're job, after all. McGrath mentions Fleming's "early talent" in jazz. This was certainly a road not taken; I have personally never thought Fleming had much of a feel for swinging rhythm and can't quite imagine her relaxing enough to really let down her hair in jazz. And by not much of a feel, I mean, not much in the way of rubato in her opera singing. Then there's this appallingly ignorant statement, in the list of her roles: ...the title role in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (an opera that was practically unheard-of until Ms. Fleming brought it back into the repertory)...First thing is, Rusalka has never been out of the repertory in Czech-speaking areas. Second thing, it has never been in, or brought back into, the repertory (that is, a piece that is regularly performed) in the US. (Take a look at the opera's recent and forthcoming performance history at Operabase.) Thus, McGrath's phrasing is simply bizarre. Fleming sang around 20 performances of it at the Met and another half-dozen or so at SF. The SF performances were around 20 years ago, too; the Met 20 were scattered over 2 or 3 runs or the opera over the years. I do not know which other companies she sang it with, but not enough to drag it into the repertory, let alone "back into" the repertory, where it never was: the first Met performances were with Gabriela Benackova, in 1993, and at SF with Fleming. SF hasn't revived it and doesn't own a production. But the big problem here is that McGrath is giving her credit for something she doesn't have any real responsibility for. She could have been an advocate for Czech opera in the US, but she hasn't been. I think McGrath might be confused here: Ms. Fleming doesn’t have much interest in becoming a figure like Adelina Patti, the hugely popular 19th- and early-20th-century opera star who went around, like Cher, giving farewell concerts for 20 years after she “retired.”I'm really pretty sure that he's thinking of Nellie Melba,




parterre box

February 17

Occult following

My first live Norma was in the early 80’s at the Met, during the spring run of Renata Scotto’s ill-fated turn at the role. It was a Tuesday night, if I recall, prior to the Saturday matinee that Scotto cancelled and Adelaide Negri took over. Scotto’s musicianship was her usual impressive standard, but the voice simply wouldn’t do what that great artist wanted it to do. Afterwards, I fell madly in love with the live 1955 La Scala recording, with Callas in fiery form and a great supporting cast and an audience in an absolute frenzy. So I was extremely curious, maybe even wary, of attending Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Norma last Monday night, having heard some reports that Sondra Radvanovsky had some difficulties in her opening night performance in the title role. I need not have worried. Radvanovsky delivered a vocal and histrionic performance that should be the gold standard Norma for years, if not decades, to come. This well-travelled production by Kevin Newbury, “new to Chicago” via San Francisco, Toronto, and the Gran Teatre del LIceu, served as an excellent frame for some real “golden age” singing from the principals and chorus. Newbury’s production, with its “Iron Age” grey walls featuring a giant wood and metal door operated by an on-stage pulley system, allowed for colorful effects in the “magical” forest behind the door. Jessica Jahn’s costumes suggested a downscale version of Game of Thrones, and were particularly unattractive for the chorus men and women. Her beautiful gold robes for Norma, however, were effective and the costume and wig were highly reminiscent of Daenerys Targaryan. The only annoying set piece in David Korins’ design was a cattle-cart like contraption on wheels that, alas, hearkened back to the annoying moving staircase in Newbury’s 2014 production of Anna Bolena at Lyric (also starring a stunning Radvanovsky). I first encountered Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora in Lyric’s 2006 Il Trovatore, where I found her singing wonderful but her acting very poor, limited to lurching about and making faces. My goodness, how that has changed. I subsequently saw improvement in her Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, and much improvement in her Anna Bolena. But her Norma announces her full arrival as a “total package” singing actress. Every gesture was natural and completely convincing—she now moves with a dancer’s grace and agility. And she used her vocal instrument for an enormous variety of effects that were always appropriate, frequently stunning, including bringing full volume down to the slightest thread of a pianissimo, then seamlessly moving back to full volume. “Casta diva” was spellbinding and haunting, followed by a bright and hopeful “A bello a me ritorno.” The soprano’s stamina was remarkable in this long and difficult sing, showing not the slightest sense of tiring from beginning to end. The voice is bigger, more flexible, and more capable of projecting genuine emotion that it’s ever been before. When she practically galloped on stage for her curtain call, almost expressing “I could go another hour!”, the audience responded with a tumultuous ovation. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was a finely sung Adalgisa, and blended beautifully with Radvanovsky in the signature “Mira, o Norma” duet, a feast of precise and moving phrasing from both women. Ms. DeShong was somewhat hampered by her matronly costume and wig, making her appear older than Norma. She occasionally seemed to be pushing for volume, perhaps working too hard to match her duet partner. But all in all, it was a convincing and moving performance. Tenor Russell Thomas made an impressive Lyric debut, singing Pollione with ardent fervor and a powerful sound, hampered only by his rather stiff demeanor. Thomas’ best moments were in the final act, when he softened and made clear his love for Norma. I first heard bass Andrea Silvestrelli in that same 2006 Trovatore where I first heard Radvanovsky, and at the time I thought him an ideal Ferrando. Alas, eleven years later, the voice has frayed significantly. His gravelly bass could always be heard above the orchestra, but not always to pleasant effect. The weakest link in the cast was Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clothilde, her voice clearly three times smaller than that of all the other principals. The Lyric Opera orchestra responded beautifully to the detailed and nuanced conducting of Riccardo Frizza, bringing much life to the orchestration of Bellini, which can often sound rather simple and “minty.” Not here, where the music seemed complex and moving under Frizza’s baton. The Lyric Opera Chorus under Michael Black was excellent, as always, providing precise diction and and a clear and bright sound. I was also impressed with the detail in the Druid clothes and manner, with interesting face and arm tattoos, as well as a distinctive “greeting” of using two fingers to touch the head, the arm, and the heart in expressing solidarity and loyalty. Altogether, it was a grand evening of singing, bringing honor to this difficult bel canto masterpiece. Photo: Andrew Cioffi



parterre box

January 24

Scritto in ciel

In our circle, Mexico City in the summer was the opera capital of the world from the late 1940s and early 1950s, dominated by first attempts at roles by a certain Senora Meneghini, of which many have been well-documented, including my favorite: a totally out-of-control Rigoletto (one of two times La Divina tried it out). But her nights off frequently offered performances of equal – or, dare I suggest it – even greater quality. This week, I offer a 1949 La favorite (sung in Italian) with some youngsters: Cesare Siepi (26), Giuseppe Di Stefano (27), and two “verterans;” Enzo Mascherini (38) and Giulietta Simionato (39). As with most of the Mexico City documents, it sounds like it was recorded with two Dixie Cups and a piece of string, but we are so very lucky to have it at all. Simionato reigned word-wide over the Verdi mezzo repertoire, including a brief but memorable stay at the Met, until her retirement in 1966 (she lived to 100, leaving this world in May 2010) is here at her smoldering, sumptuous best. Also with a worldwide reputation, “Pipo” (Di Stefano) was a Met mainstay from his 1948 debut as il duca du Mantua through a 1956 Cavaradossi, followed only by one legendarily disastrous attempt at Les contes d’Hoffmann in 1965. Before Maria Callas and/or Tulio Serafin and/or Herbert von Karajan (take your pick: feel free to mix and match) forced his lovely voice into Un ballo in maschera, Don José, Puccini’s des Grieux, and – most disastrously – Manrico, he displayed the technique of a superb, light, lyric tenor. Of the 1949 Met New Year’s Eve broadcast of Faust, Sir Rudolf Bing said in his memoirs, “The most spectacular single moment in my observation year had come when I heard his diminuendo on the high C in “Salut! demeure” in Faust: I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound.” Di Stefano, meaning well, coaxed Callas out of a depression and retirement for a worldwide tour in the mid-1970s in which both proved they still had the musical commitment and intention to offer superb performances, but sadly lacked the vocal resources to fulfill their commitments. (I attended their first USA concert in Philadelphia in 1974) While Callas soon gave up – on art, music, and life – Di Stefano struggled until 1992, making his farewell as Altoum in Turandot in 1992. After a series of health problems, he died in 2008 at age 86 in his home near Milano. Mascherini, a student of Titta Ruffo and Riccardo Stracciari, had a brief Met career consisting of five roles within six weeks between 1949 and 1950 with the company’ stars, but was mainly a highly-regarded La Scala regular for many seasons beginning in 1940. Siepi most notably made his Met debut at age 26 on Rudolph Bing’s first opening night in 1950 as Filippo II in Don Caro and sang nearly 500 performances there until his final Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia with Marilyn Horne and Hermann Prey in 1973, having first sung the role with Lily Pons and Giuseppe Valdengo in his debut season. Not only a master of the Italian and French repertoire, Siepi delivered a stunning series of performances in his only German role, Gurnamenz in Parsifal, in the 1970 new production, hailed by critics as “revelatory.” His final performance was as Oroveso in Norma in Vienna in 1994. One of the Met’s all-time favorite artists, he died at 87 in 2010.

The Well-Tempered Ear

January 10

Classical music: Georges Prêtre, the French conductor Vienna adored, has died at 92

By Jacob Stockinger Vienna has been called “The Paris of the Reich.” Perhaps that is why the Viennese took such a liking to the suave and debonair French conductor Georges Prêtre (below, in a photo by Dieter Nagli for Getty Images ), who died last Wednesday at 92. The urbane Prêtre – who specialized in French music but also was much in demand for a lot of German and Italian repertoire — studied karate and judo. But he also enjoyed the good life and by all accounts had a terrific sense of humor coupled to a “joie de vivre.” He often said he preferred being a guest conductor to being a music director because the former was like a love affair and the latter was like a commitment. Yet Prêtre was committed: He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years. His conducting career spanned 70 years. He was known for his association with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony. But he also conducted 101 performances of seven operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City . He also frequently conducted in Milan, Philadelphia and Chicago. Here is a good summary obituary, with sound clips of orchestral and operatic music, from National Public Radio (NPR): http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/01/05/508374381/georges-pr-tre-a-conductor-with-a-70-year-career-dies-at-92 And here is a longer obituary, which gives you the French flavor of the man and the musician, from The New York Times : http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/arts/music/georges-pretre-french-conductor-known-for-improvisation-dies-at-92.html And here is George Prêtre’s most popular video on YouTube , which also serves as a fine memorial in sound: Tagged: A German Requiem (Brahms) , Arts , Austria , choral music , Classical music , commitment , conductor , France , French music , Germany , good life , guest conductor , Italian music , Italy , joie de vivre , judo , karate , La Scala , love affair , Maria Callas , Marriage , Met , Metropolitan Opera , Mozart , Music , Music director , New York City , New York Times , NPR , Orchestra , Philharmonic , repertoire , symphony , United States , University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music , University of Wisconsin–Madison , Vienna , Vienna Philharmonic , Vienna Symphony , vocal music , Wagner , wife , Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , YouTube

Maria Callas
(1923 – 1977)

Maria Callas (December 2, 1923 - September 16, 1977) was an American-born Greek soprano and one of the most renowned opera singers of the 20th century. She combined an impressive bel canto technique, a wide-ranging voice and great dramatic gifts. An extremely versatile singer, her repertoire ranged from classical opera seria to the bel canto operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini; further, to the works of Verdi and Puccini; and, in her early career, to the music dramas of Wagner. Her remarkable musical and dramatic talents led to her being hailed as La Divina.



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