Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Florence Foster Jenkins, the Hollywood biopic of the eponymous American amateur soprano, opened in UK cinemas this week; American movie-goers have to wait until August before being able to appreciate Meryl Streep’s commanding performance in the title role. Acting performance, that is. You may be new to the legend of FFJ (1868–1944), so we’ll start with a brief introduction to the lady that will also act as a prologue to the focus of this week’s blog. Some of the details of FFJ’s life and recording tally remain a bit fuzzy, but some things about the lady are quite clear: she loved singing, was bad at it, but was rich enough and socially connected enough to be able to bypass the challenges of self-awareness that most of us have to grapple with, projecting herself to the top of a ladder that very few can aspire to. To set the scene, here’s an extract from her recording of the technically demanding Bell Song (8.120711 ) from Delibes’ opera Lakmé. If that was like taking a cold shower in an igloo, let’s refresh by taking a pleasanter dip into the pool of brave ladies who fearlessly strut their stuff, centre stage, before an arena of critical listeners who come to get their tingle factor from fiendishly difficult, high-lying vocal lines dispatched with disarming ease: welcome to the world of the operatic dramatic coloratura soprano. The music that composers wrote with these singers in mind created a select super-class of exponents whose names live on. One who is very much alive, however, is the Chinese soprano, Dilbèr. She was born in Kashgar, a trading centre on the ancient Silk Road, in what is now the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in northwestern China. But here she is in the 19th-century world of Italian opera, taking the role of Lisa in Bellini’s La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) (8.660042-43 ). Spoiler alert: put away all valuable glassware to avoid possible shattering. Last month, the celebrated Russian soprano Anna Netrebko announced that she was pulling out of her engagement to sing the title role of another Bellini opera, Norma, at London’s Royal Opera House later this year. She said that her “voice has evolved in a different direction.” One can sympathise; walking this high-wire role has no hiding place. In contrast, Maria Callas (1923–1977) was a reliable champion of the role, performing it scores of times during her career. Here’s the diva in an extract from a 1953 performance of the aria Cast diva (8.110325-27 ). The German soprano Erna Berger had to endure a difficult and improbable prologue to her career as an opera star. Although her talent was recognised early on, her father decided to move the family to Paraguay where, following his death, the young Erna was forced to take on a job as a governess. She saved up enough money to return to Germany, however, where she studied singing in her spare time and worked in an office to keep the wolf from the door. She was eventually hired by Fritz Busch at the Dresden State Opera before joining the Berlin State Opera in 1934, where she remained for the next twenty years. She excelled in a comprehensive repertoire. Here she sings the Laughing Song (8.110733 ) from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Coloratura passages were often used to colour the evil or demented nature of female characters in opera. Mozart incomparably employed the technique in the role of The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute (8.660030-31 ). The aria Der Hölle Rache provides a clear example of someone at the extremes of normality, both in vocal technique and character, as sung here by Hellen Kwon. Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor (8.660255-56 ) perhaps provides the ultimate for the unhinged in its so-called Mad Scene. Since the work’s première in 1835, the title role has always attracted the top coloratura sopranos of their day. Here is Dilbèr again as the terrified Lucia , bereft of reason, a blood-drenched dagger in hand (short synopsis only here!), leaving the listener thinking that a singer must indeed be insane to tackle such music, in costume, under the lights, and constrained by dramatic demands. And so we end where we began, with Florence Foster Jenkins, who died a few months after she took the leap from giving small-scale entertainments to taking to the stage at Carnegie Hall when, we are told, people were turned away in their thousands and scalpers were raking in their booty. It’s a bittersweet way to end this Thought for the Week, with a reprise of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria , performed by the Diva of Din. I propose a toast to all eccentrics, everywhere, eternally!
Met Opera´s productions seen simultaneously via satellite at the Teatro El Nacional, organized by Pupi Sebastiani´s Fundación Beethoven, have become an indispensable way for local audiences to experience first-rate opera with artists that mainly haven´t been at the Colón. The final two of the 2015-16 season have been seen now, always on certain Saturdays at 2 pm. In October starts the 2016-17 activity, but many of those that have been appreciated in the recent series will be programmed again later this year at the Auditorium of the Fundación. The operas I am reviewing reflect the enormous variety of the world of opera both musically and dramatically. Gaetano Donizetti´s "Roberto Devereux" immerses us in the Late Elizabethan period through the lens of bel canto. Richard Strauss´ "Elektra" transports us to the dark world of Greek tragedy in Mycenaean times but with a Freudian twist. The prolific Donizetti wrote about 70 operas, buffo or dramatic. Success came only with his 34th, "Anna Bolena" (1830). It became his first to be staged in Paris and London and was followed by "Maria Stuarda" (1834) and "Roberto Devereux" (1837) to form the so-called trilogy of British Queens. After WWII there was a revival of bel canto and Maria Callas was essential in this trend: her Bolena set a pattern that was followed by great artists. Beverly Sills sang all three and here Adelaida Negri performed that feat with her own company. It is sad to consign that the Colón only offered "Anna Bolena" in 1970 and ignored the other two. But the Met has presented all three with a great artist unknown here: Sondra Radvanovsky. "Roberto Devereux", with libretto by Salvatore Cammarano based on a tragedy by François Ancelot ("Elisabeth d´Angleterre") , recounts a dramatic episode of the aging (69) Queen Elizabeth I. The year, 1601. Devereux, Earl of Essex, was the favorite of Elizabeth but theirs was a conflictive relationship. The Virgin Queen was called so because she never married, though she did have liaisons. Essex was brilliant, charming, in war courageous to the point of temerity; however, he lacked judgment and that was to prove fatal. Probably the Queen´s lover, he quarreled with her publicly and opposed her principal minister, Lord Robert Cecil. After failing to win a crucial battle against Scotland´s Tyrone, he plotted against the Queen, was tried and executed. The political facts are lightly touched upon in Cammarano´s libretto; instead, the accent is put on Robert´s affair with Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (and the Duke is Robert´s best friend!). Cecil wants Robert´s death, but the Queen will only agree when she has the evidence of her lover´s romantic treason. In the final scene, the old monarch falls to pieces in desperation. The music is prime bel canto, with plenty of lovely melodies, although less elaborate than "Anna Bolena". None of the four principals has ever come to BA; any or all should be warmly welcomed in the future. Radvanovsky is marvelous, both in her singing and acting: a vast register, fine timbre, total control of florid passages, but foremost a moving transformation in the final half hour when she throws her wig away and is no longer a queen but a wretched old woman in total anguish. As her rival Sarah we have Elina Garança, to my mind the best mezzosoprano in the present scene: beauty, poise, perfect voice and style, expressive but contained. Tenor Matthew Polenzani has a sweet timbre and a firm technique; he transmits the mercurial quality of Essex. And baritone Mariusz Kwiecien gives us the two aspects of his role faithfully: he defends his friend to his own risk until he knows Robert´s treason and then becomes his infuriated enemy. The other parts are well taken. Conductor Maurizio Benini is a specialist in the genre, and of course both chorus and orchestra are excellent. Sir David McVicar´s staging respects time and place and it looks handsome (he is also stage designer; costumes by Moritz Junge). One fault: voyeurism (witnesses where there should be none). "Elektra" is Strauss´ undisputed masterpiece: his most audacious and intense score and the best one-acter in history. The libretto by Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal, based on Sophocles, makes it clear that we are seeing the ideal example of Freudian Electra complex. The main role is the longest and most exhausting of all in opera. Unfortunately Patrice Chéreau´s production (his last before dying) continually contradicts the libretto from the very beginning. Here voyeurism is stretched to the extreme and makes nonsense of most scenes, and apart from that he ruins the finale: it is basic that Klytämnestra and Aegisth (the assassins of Agamemnon) should be killed offstage, but here they die in full presence of the audience; and Electra doesn´t die, when the whole point is that once vengeance is accomplished she has no reason to live. But the three leading feminine parts save the day. I hadn´t had the opportunity to hear and see Nina Stemme, considered one of the great dramatic sopranos nowadays: and she certainly is. The voice is firm, the musicality strong, she acts vividly and has the stamina to stay the course. The veteran Waltraud Meier was a subtle Klytämnestra and Adrianne Pieczonka a radiant Chruysothemis. Only the Orest of Eric Owens seemed poorly cast. Esa-Pekka Salonen´s conducting was professional but short on impact; the enormous orchestra didn´t seem so. For Buenos Aires Herald
To withdraw from one role is unfortunate. Two starts to look like contempt (pace O. Wilde). The double-whammy that Anna Netrebko has inflicted on the Royal Opera House and the Met – agreeing at the first to sing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and at both to sing Bellini’s Norma – would not have been tolerated in former times. Rudolf Bing fired Maria Callas from the Met for capriciousness. Joe Volpe evicted Kathleen Battle from the Met for anti-social conduct. The house, and the art, was always deemed to be greater than the whims of a singer, no matter how popular or epochal. That rule no longer applies. Anna Netrebko has not been banned from the ROH or the Met for leading them deliriously into planning productions that she would never fulfil. She has not been reprimanded, either. She can do this because she is the only living soprano with the power to command top prices in London and (almost) to fill a New York opera house that plays half-empty the rest of the year. She can do, in effect, as she pleases. So can Jonas Kaufmann, the allround German tenor, who has cut his appearance at both houses to once a season – and has latterly cancelled both. Both singers are now unassailable. They wield more clout than Peter Gelb and the next intendant put together. Thankfully, neither is ego-crazed nor misanthropic. Both are courteous to a fault. But when push comes to shove, they push and the best-laid plans of the opera world fall down. That is not a healthy situation.
The Vienna State Opera has announced the death of former ensemble member Gabriele Sima. Winner of the 1979 Maria Callas Prize, Gabriele made her debut that year as Barbarina in Marriage of Figaro. She was an ensemble member from 1982 to 1999, singing 53 roles in 599 performances. She also sang regularly at the Salzburg Festival and Hamburg State Opera.
Kathleen Battle, a singer whose dismissal by the Metropolitan Opera more than twenty years ago made front-page news, will return to the Metropolitan Opera next season to sing a recital of spirituals. The concert, scheduled for Nov. 13, was arranged by Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager. “I think great artists should be on the stage of the Met,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview. “There aren’t enough of them.” Ms. Batttle’s dismissal — and return — calls to mind other clashes between opera divas and impresarios. Maria Callas, one of the great sopranos of the 20th century, was fired by the Met in 1958 after a dispute over which roles she would agree to sing. She, too, was rehired, in 1965, and returned to give two final Met performances of “Tosca” that are now considered legendary. Ms Battle’s concert will feature a selection of spirituals. Here is Kathleen Battle in “Voices of Spring” by Johann Strauss, in a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert Von Karajan:
“It may be the biggest unfiring in opera since Maria Callas’s New York comeback: Kathleen Battle, a prima donna whose dismissal by the Metropolitan Opera more than two decades ago made front-page news, will return to the Met next season to sing a recital of spirituals.”
Great opera singers