Wednesday, February 22, 2017
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
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.
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
French conductor Georges Prêtre (1924–2017) has died. Prêtre made his Royal Opera debut in 1965 when he was engaged to conduct the first revival of Franco Zeffirelli ’s historic production of Tosca . Prêtre conducted the cast of the original production – Maria Callas , Tito Gobbi and Renato Cioni – and his interpretation was hailed for its understanding of the score and his sympathetic coaxing of a clearly ill Callas in the title role. In fact, Callas only sang one of the four scheduled performances, a Royal Gala. This performance turned out to be her final operatic appearance. The Australian soprano Marie Collier – one of Covent Garden Opera Company’s resident artists – was rushed in to take over. Prêtre with great musical skill guided the young soprano through the demands of the role, both musically and dramatically, and joined the soprano for her rapturous reception at the end. They were given 14 on-stage curtain calls and won rave reviews. In 1980 Prêtre returned to conduct the premiere of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in John Schlesinger ’s acclaimed production. Prêtre accompanied the stellar cast – including Plácido Domingo , Geraint Evans , Agnes Baltsa and Ileana Cotrubas – with a rare and commanding authority. The Financial Times commented, ‘The orchestra were on admirably light-fingered form for Prêtre’, while The Observer wrote, ‘Prêtre conducts with warmth and vitality’. Hoffmann was soon established as one of The Royal Opera’s most popular productions and has been regularly revived. Prêtre returned in 1983 to conduct the first revival of Elijah Moshinsky ’s production of Samson et Dalila, with Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett in the title roles. He had a genuine love of the Saint-Saëns score and brought a real vitality to the evening. Prêtre supported Vickers’s towering performance as Samson and The Times warmly greeted his conducting of the ‘beautifully soft choral singing and orchestral playing of endlessly versatile finesse’. Prêtre was recognized worldwide as an inspiring conductor. He enjoyed an exceptional rapport with Callas – both on stage and in the recording studio – and his musically assured appearances at Covent Garden in three epic productions make a fitting legacy.
How many books have been published about Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou Meneghini Callas, great operatic goddess of the dark arts? Just in my own lifetime it’s nearly become its own cottage industry. Scandalous tell-alls alternate with a major opus by some gossip columnist printed on good paper. Some tend to the chatty and catty, others take more scholarly slants. All of them still try to capture a piece of that simultaneously iron-willed yet fragile personality that dominated the world of opera from the moment the curtain came down on her game changing performance as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at La Fenice in Venice in 1949 until the, sad and far too early, death in 1977 at age 53. It’s a funny thing about books written about Maria Callas. Many of them, although penned by skilled and proficient biographers, lack musical context because the authors may well have done mountainous research but they themselves aren’t opera lovers. Consequently they don’t really see the wider frame of historical reference. It’s important to also touch on what sets Callas apart and made her one of the greatest interpretive artists of the 20th century. In the end a lot of these books feel empty. It’s all just a lot of blather and conjecture about motives and emotional reactions without a true appreciation for the artist as anything but a tabloid personality. What we have before us now, though. is something unique. Roads Publishing has come forward with The Definitive Maria Callas: The Life of a Diva in Unseen Pictures . Many of these photos have been “unseen” by you and me because they’ve been languishing away in the Villa Marzotto in Trissino. After the death of Bruno Tosi, who was the head of the Maria Callas Association, there was some legal wrangling before the Fondazione Progetto Marzotto could take charge of her personal archives with the many memorabilia and personal objects that had been left sadly decaying and unkempt in Mr. Tosi’s possession. Now, after careful preservation, these and many others of the most famous portraits and candids of La Divina are on display in this new coffee table volume for our quiet genuflection and devotion. At just over 300 pages it’s printed on heavy paper with a flat matte finish so the only glare you’ll see is from those famous Greek eyes. It’s not just a book of pictures it’s a book of the pictures. And yet is is still surprising to see Callas in so many early photos from Greece and Mexico City when the career was in its infancy and she was full -igured. It’s even more surprising to read her letters to her husband Giovanni Meneghini, cooing and whimpering of her unhappiness without him by her side. Her complete devotion is rendered in the kind of solicitous language you wouldn’t even think Maria Callas was capable of. Yet still the personality we think we know peeks out occasionally from behind the veil, ”Are you never jealous of me? That’s not good, and I’m displeased,” she writes to him. Can you hear thunder from distant mountaintops? Many photos are printed in larger format than we’ve seen before, often only one to a page. Nine chapters, each prefaced by a potent quote of Madame’s, and lightly scattered throughout with fairly brief biographical content just to give the reader a timeline. Among the things I had never seen were pictures from that famous Fenice Puritani, candids from a vacation on the island of Ischia in 1956 (Callas smokes!), and dressed as Princess Hatshepsut of Egypt for Elsa Maxwell’s costume ball at the Waldorf in New York. Then we have Callas with a host of celebrities backstage and at dinners including Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor, and standing next to Marilyn Monroe (in THAT dress) at the famous JFK 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. (Callas also sang that night.) Some of the snapshots show her looking pensive when I don’t think she was aware she was being captured. I especially like the use of the original tints on some of the fashion photography. There are even a couple of Callas’ recipes in her own hand. Karl H. van Zoggel is to be praised for writing the biographical text and having already written two books on Callas (in Dutch) he knows his subject well enough that he doesn’t have to prove it. He’s not fawning or overtly dramatic in a tabloid way which suits the slow pace of the book and its content. I appreciated his clear style because we all know there’s enough drama in the story of this woman’s life just in the reciting of it. There’s little need to fan those flames. “I thought when I met a man I loved, that I didn’t have to sing,” begins one of the last chapters and you start to see the sadness creeping up behind her in her face and her eyes in the pages that follow. I suppose it shouldn’t be astonishing that she wanted fulfillment and validation as a woman as well as an artist. Ultimately, her life wasn’t really hers. In the meantime we now have this wonderful, and you could say definitive, pictorial document of this extraordinarily talented woman who had such a sense of high style and was one of the consummate artists of her era. Meanwhile it’ll look stunning on the coffee table and it’ll tide you over until they open the theme park. Photo © Marzotto Collection
Great opera singers