Thursday, June 30, 2016
US mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has been elected 2016 Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year at Dallas Opera. She created the role of American opera singer Arden Scott, the central character in Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s new opera Great Scott which premiered in Dallas in October 2015 and was voted by subscribers as their outstanding debutante. Joyce writes: I am sincerely and deeply honored to receive the Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award from The Dallas Opera, for my role as Arden Scott in Jake Heggie’s world premiere, GREAT SCOTT. Of course it is the dream of any singer to be mentioned in the same breath as Maria Callas, so I will very proudly carry this mantle associated with so many of my dear colleagues from years past! But perhaps the most sublime part of this, is that the award comes from this incredible journey of a world premiere, which The Dallas Opera championed so beautifully, and one that celebrates our art form so victoriously. We created a glorious “GREAT SCOTT Family” within the beautiful “Dallas Opera Family,” and for this, I feel so very grateful. I’d like to imagine that Maria is smiling down on us all, proud for carrying on her philosophy of singing from a place of truth—for without any doubt, we all know how much she continues to matter! A million thanks for this most special award! Joyce DiDonato Past winners include: Susan Graham, Cecilia Bartoli, Denyce Graves, Patricia Racette, Latonia Moore and Ben Heppner.
Slipped Disc is privileged to present an extract from the newly published memoirs of veteran artists manager, Jacques Leiser. When I saw Maria Callas it was love at first sight. The first LP of hers that I heard – I still recall my excitement when I think about it – was her “Puccini Heroines” recital recording in which she sang “In Quelle Trine Morbide” from Manon Lescaut. I was bowled over by it. Callas recorded a large quantity of operas for EMI at La Scala during this period. The recordings usually took a month approximately, sometimes less, sometimes more. The recording sessions often had to be inserted during different periods, on account of Callas’s already heavy touring schedule throughout the world. In April 1954 she sang La Sonnambula at La Scala. It was the first time I heard her live. I was there for the premiere. Without a free ticket, I could never have afforded to attend. After the performance I went backstage, was introduced to Callas, and congratulated her. Two days later there was a second performance, and I went back again. She looked at me and asked, “Didn’t I see you here at the premiere?” and I said, “Yes.” Then she said, “And you’re back again?” to which I replied, “Yes, and I’ll be here tomorrow as well.” She was simply astounded. I attended all ten performances; I couldn’t get enough. Each performance was unique, a new experience each time. Maria Callas was my absolute idol and one of the most inspiring artists I have ever met, one who gave everything for her art. In time I became friends with her, and she was always very gracious to me. In addition to her extraordinary singing voice – which was easily recognizable even on the radio – Callas’s speaking voice was incredible. When I received telephone calls from her, I would be captivated by the first word she said. Her voice had a timbre like none other I have ever heard. I will never forget the mesmerizing impression she made with its smooth, velvety and warm quality, the beauty of her magical voice, her unforgettable nuances, as well as the power of her voice and incredible dramatic projection on the stage. She was absolutely unique and could not be compared with any other singers of her time. The Callas I knew was very different from the temperamental diva portrayed by the media; I remember her as an artist totally dedicated to her art, thoughtful and kind to others, even people she knew only casually. She was thoroughly professional, always willing to redo recording takes or whatever was required of her, very cooperative, rarely temperamental without just cause, and a perfectionist. During the tiring Norma recording sessions in the mid 1950s, for instance, one of which lasted until 2 a.m., including a major shift in venue when the stage at La Scala was needed for something else, she didn’t complain, but her colleagues – some of whom were not as committed as she was – did show their irritation. EMI was obliged to order nearly fifty taxicabs to get the musicians home after this marathon session! On one occasion, before a rehearsal at La Scala, she was asked to wait until the eminent pianist Wilhelm Backhaus finished going over a concerto on stage. Callas refused adamantly, saying, “I don’t care if it is Backhaus! I’m supposed to start my rehearsal at 3 o’clock. Tell him it’s over.” This was not temperament. As a professional she did not want to lose five minutes of her working time. She needed every minute of it. She was a true perfectionist. Callas was mesmerizing, a far greater artist on stage than any of her colleagues. She immersed herself in her roles. As an example, while rehearsing Medea at La Scala we would go to a nearby café, where once during a break from a dress rehearsal, someone asked, “Maria, what are you holding in your hand?” She was still holding a dagger! Even during a coffee break her mind was still on the stage. A rather poignant incident illustrates a side of Callas that is rarely mentioned, her emotional warmth. During her 1962 German tour with the conductor Georges Prêtre, she was singing when Prêtre cued both the singer and the orchestra incorrectly. Callas signaled him, calmly and unobtrusively so as not to embarrass him, to go back several measures. After the performance, Prêtre disappeared into his hotel room and avoided the reception. Callas inquired, “Where’s Georges?” and asked me to take her to his room. We left the reception and went to Prêtre’s room, where she called out, “It’s Maria! Open the door.” He opened it, dressed in his bathrobe; he was very upset. She sat him down on the bed and lectured him in a motherly fashion, “You’re an excellent conductor… it could happen to anybody.” I was profoundly moved: she was consoling him; a typical prima donna would have been screaming that he had ruined her performance. I was witness to another instance of her kindness during that German tour. One day I brought some mail addressed to her including a letter from a former member of the La Scala chorus, whom she did not know, who had sung in some performances with Callas. The singer had since married a German and was living in Hamburg. She had never forgotten those La Scala performances and had tried but failed to buy tickets for the gala concert that was scheduled for Hamburg during the tour. Not only did Callas request two free tickets for her former colleague, but she replied personally with a friendly note. When I left EMI in 1964, I wrote personal notes saying goodbye to various artists and all my friends and associates, including Callas, mentioning that I was no longer associated with EMI. Shortly afterwards, Callas sang Norma in Paris before a glittering audience including political dignitaries and celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot, Yves St. Laurent, and others. At the end of the performance I went backstage to congratulate her. She was still on stage, not in her dressing room. When she saw me, she embraced me – while she was still going out to take curtain calls – and said, “Oh, I kept your note and I’m so sorry to hear you have left EMI! What are you doing now?” It was as if we were sitting together alone at a café. At such a moment of success, how could she remember if I had written her a note three or four months before? She was a generous, caring person. Unfortunately, despite her great talent and dedication, Callas frequently experienced vocal difficulties. EMI had brought its most advanced recording equipment to Italy, but La Scala had no provisions for a control booth with a direct view of the performers on stage. If Walter Legge, the legendary British chief producer for EMI records (and the husband of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, another of the great sopranos of the time) heard something unusual occurring, he would ask me to go on stage to investigate. One day he asked, “Who is that mezzo or alto making those awful noises down there? Go and tell her to leave.” Unfortunately, it turned out to be La Divina herself in a moment of vocal crisis. The fact was that some days Callas wasn’t in voice. It just wasn’t there. She knew it – and we knew it. At those times she would just pick up her bag and say “Ciao!” Again, it was not a matter of temperament. We knew she couldn’t perform, so we simply worked on some other section of the recording. Although I was not at the 33 infamous Rome performance of Norma attended by the Italian president – the performance that Callas abandoned after the first act – I am quite certain that her voice simply left her. Of course the press seized upon this to portray her as temperamental. Throughout her career, Callas struggled in trying to control her voice with its unusually large range. She suffered considerably, being aware of her inadequacies. Her voice sometimes was uneven between the registers, but she compensated for all the vocal imperfections and persisted where others would have given up. Callas used to phone me late at night from her hotel room when she could not unwind or fall asleep. She would sometimes talk for nearly an hour, about herself, her life, her problems, etc, then would say that we had better get some sleep. Invariably she ended these conversations saying, “Pray for me that I’ll awake tomorrow with my voice.” (c) Jacques Leiser
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.
Great opera singers