Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Giulio Cesare in Egitto closes at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris

Pictured: Sunday, 22 October 2006; Renaud Delaigue (Curio), Sonia Prina (Cornelia), Franco Fagioli (Tolomeo), Christophe Rousset (conductor), Rosemary Joshua (Cleopatra), Andreas Scholl (Giulio Cesare), Mario Cassi (Achilla), [supernumery], Alice Coote (Sesto), [supernumery]
I attended opening night of this new production at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. I returned for the final two performances. (In between the first and the fourth performance, I attended two other events at this venue, and I sat in the same section all five nights. You can bet they know me there!)

Without question the big news about this production is its star, Andreas Scholl. Christophe Rousset (who grooves like no other conductor I've seen) led Les Talens Lyriques, and Irina Brook headed the stage production.

Opening night was not an overwhelming success. The orchestra sounded dry. The audience was not enthusiastic about the production. During curtain calls, Brook was booed off the stage.

Things were entirely different on Sunday. I noticed not only the excellent singing of the cast, but also the warm playing of the orchestra. Also, I was surprised to observe that the production worked. There's nothing genius about it; it's a simple set consisting of sand dunes and some sight gags. But I found that it never distracted from what was happening, and so what if there were some cheap laughs? I was entertained, and, most importantly, I heard these voices.

I'll start with the other countertenors, Damien Guillon and Franco Fagioli, who are both my age (born in 1981). Nireno doesn't sing very much, but I like what I heard of Guillon's voice, and, with his spiked hair, he certainly had a presence on stage. I very much liked Fagioli as Tolomeo. Grotesque and decadent, this was a Tolomeo who swaggered about in purple, showing skin when he probably shouldn't. It is quite extraordinary to see such a young singer wield such a strong dramatic presence. As remarkable is the voice: loud, dark but not hooty, with a powerful lower register and a gleaming (but underused) top.

I heard Rosemary Joshua sing Cleopatra with David Daniels in Miami in 2000. I remember liking her then, and her performances here indicate that she loves singing this rather demanding role. The arias are difficult, to be sure, and, while I haven't done the math, I'm certain that Cleopatra sings quite a bit more than Cesare. Joshua's pretty voice is ideal for Handel. Her lines are clean, her coloratura clear as a bell, and her ornaments seem faithful to the music. (She did not interpolate many high notes--I doubt there was anything above A--but I did not miss them.) This is another singer with remarkable stage presence. A joy to watch on stage, she danced through this role--often literally, using moves that seem inspired by Madonna's "Don't Tell Me" video.

Recent Met debutante Alice Coote is one of the most impressive younger singers I have heard lately. (Elina Garanca is another.) Her beautiful, rich sound is largish, and at the end of her first aria--Handel certainly wrote Sesto some damn good solos--she unleashed the highest and loudest note of the evening. Her "Cara speme" was breathtaking, with seamless legato and shimmering tone to spare. She will sing Sesto in the Met revival this spring.

Speaking of breathtaking, on Sunday in particular, Scholl floored me with his gorgeous "Aure, deh, per pietà," whose opening phrase he started singing softly, gradually increasing the volume. (He does a similar thing at the opening of "Dove sei, amato bene" in Rodelinda.) This role also gives him plenty of chances to show off his dazzling coloratura. Scholl, who stands 6'5" (I haven't confirmed this; I heard it from a very famous recent Met costar of Scholl's), looked every bit the part as the ruler of the world. Still, he has a youthful presence, and also comes across as very warm and self-effacing. Sporting a Caesar cut and a light beard, he looked quite smart, especially in the tailored suit in the final scene.

The one dreadful part of the production: the horrible playing from the horns. What happened? All three nights. The boos were deserved. "Va tacito e nascosto", which is supposed to be a high point, was ruined, as were parts of the final scene.

Finally, I have to compliment the make-up artists, who made everyone look great.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Kiri Te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade in Paris

A look at the program, which was presented in three United States locations as well as in England (I'm not sure where else), would make one conclude that it was meant for Paris. Like Madonna's "I Love New York," which insults every city but the Big Apple, Poulenc's ecstatic "Voyage a Paris," programmed in the first half, says that any place other than Paris sucks. Kiri looked at Flicka and was clearly extremely excited to sing that song to us. Such enormous smiles!

Last night's recital was the most satisfying performance I've seen this season. I can hardly top the accuracy of Joshua Koshman's spot-on review of the Berkley recital, which occurred about a month ago. He describes why these artists are so special, what makes them legends, and why the recital was such a blast.

As hard as this is, I'll sketch my thoughts. Kiri: silvery, creamy tone; gentle, elegant, natural delivery; poise; uncanny ability to sing so softly; crisp diction in English; unfailingly clean lines; gorgeous face. She barely opens her mouth. Sometimes, her teeth touch and her mouth is open, revealing them--where does the sound come from? I have never seen a classical singer look more attractive while singing.

Flicka's goofiness clearly rubs off on Kiri. But Flicka can also be deeply moving, as in "O Waly, Waly," and "Connais-tu le pays." In these pieces, she unleashed an especially haunting sound.

Part of the fun was watching the divas interact on stage. I'll never forget Kiri's elegant pose, her legs crossed, as she watched Flicka sing her solos. Flicka often closed her eyes in rapture as she listened to Kiri sing.

The finest groups on the program were the Berlioz, Poulenc, and Cantaloube.

The lovely "Barcarolle" from Hoffman was somewhat underplayed, and Kiri came off as a little detached because she constantly glanced at the song's text, which had been placed on the piano.

The highlight of the entire recital, for me, was the second and last encore, a song I've never heard, consisting of "Meows." (UPDATE: Rossini's "Cat Duet.") After the first movement, the divas bended their knees and Marilyn-Monroed (yeah, it's a verb), "Mr. President!" There was a sense that there was no separation between artist and human being; Kiri and Flicka were just Kiri and Flicka, having a ball on stage in Paris.

Kiri's was the first classical voice I ever heard live, when I was twelve. This was only my fourth time hearing her, and I never thought I'd have the chance to meet her. I still didn't, not really, but I did get an autograph. She messed up as she was signing and said, "Sorry!" with a laugh. The crowd at the stage door was large, and she stayed quite a long time signing just about every program (and vintage memorabilia) before saying "Bye!" and "Au revoir!" and walking down to the sidewalk, turning left, and retiring to the Plaza Athenee.

After watching Kiri disappear, I returned to the throng to catch Flicka. An assistant accompanying the mezzo said that she has to get going (Flicka looked at me and quipped, "Je suis vielle!"--the tone was, "They're saying I'm old!") and can sign for three more people; thankfully, I was one of those.

As Sarah and I left, glancing now and then at Flicka, who was walking parallel to us on the other side of the street, we turned a corner and, as I looked back, I saw the Eiffel Tower sparkling, as it does for ten minutes every hour on the hour. Magic.

Sarah and I proceeded to a lovely Italian restaurant on the Champs-Elysees and talked the night away; hours later, we caught cabs at the Arc de Triomphe.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bejun Mehta

It occurred to me that, given the number of performances I'm attending, it's going to be impossible to write on everything. So, I will post titles/descriptions of the events I attend, but I will elaborate on only a few of them. And I will share photos and videos when possible.

Having said this, I'll write on Mehta's Châtelet recital tomorrow morning, and I'll also tie up a couple other loose ends.

UPDATE (4:31pm): Time is too scarce!


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rameau's Les Paladins at the Châtelet with Les Arts Florissants, William Christie

What a lovely production. Outstanding playing and singing, imaginative staging--what more could one want? After the three-hour performance, the audience demanded at least half a dozen curtain calls--if the Chatelet hadn't turned the lights on, we would've demanded a half dozen more. More on this opéra hip-hop (as it's billed) later.

The Age of This Diva

I don't usually listen to recordings. I collect them as souvenirs. But this one is different. I cannot stop listening. As in her incandescent recording of Daphne, a beautiful souvenir of the concert performance at Carnegie Hall one year ago, I marvel at how sound engineers have finally figured out how to capture the sumptuous beauty of Renee Fleming's voice.

I find myself getting tipsy while listening to the Korngold tracks, especially "Ich ging zu ihm" from Das Wunder der Heliane. As Fleming has said [thanks, Sarah], you just want to take a bath in it.

More on this later.

UPDATE (6:36pm):

This eloquent passage is from Jay Nordlinger's review in the New York Sun:

I have a strange opinion, which is that Ms. Fleming, famous as she is, is underrated. Critics, particularly, tend to overlook how good she is, because she's something of a pop celebrity, and because her mannerisms — vocal mannerisms, I mean — can annoy. Really annoy. Like anyone else, she's capable of performing badly. But she can also perform like an immortal.

And "Homage" is one of the best albums she has ever done. It is a tribute, not just to divas past, or to the diva present, but to opera itself, and the human voice.

What he says is very true. Underrated and underappreciated.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Andreas Scholl is Giulio Cesare in Egitto in Paris

Details on opening night coming soon.

In brief:

The production team was booed!

Fine singing.

3/4 of Les Troyens and Bryn Terfel

Yesterday I had to leave during the second intermission of Les Troyens (I missed Act V), but I did catch this production in its entirety at the premiere last Wednesday. This opera is very trying on the audience. There are few rewards for a lot of pain. What was especially painful about this production was the awful singing. Jon Villars (Enee), even at his best, has a terribly unattractive sound. He has what seems to be a pushed-up baritone. It's a loud, weird voice. Elena Zaremba (Anna), beautiful on stage, ruined her character's beautiful lines with a garbled, extremely hooty sound. Neither was in command of pitch.

But there were some good things. Deborah Polaski has a powerful voice that cuts through the hall with astonishing clarity, but she also sounds lovely singing softly. Polaski has a formidable stage presence. She is not a subtle actress, however. And though I can see there might be reasons for this production to have her sing both Cassandre and Didon, I'm ambivalent about the results.

The best thing about the production, as I mentioned previously, was Eric Cutler's lovely Iopas. Cutler seems a little awkward on stage, but his tiny, beautiful voice is assured. On opening night the audience erupted in ovations after his solo, but this didn't happen yesterday. He delicately caressed the long phrases, sighing beautiful pianissimi and rising up to a loud, ringing high C. He reminds me of Matthew Polenzani, who may well be my favorite tenor, although Polenzani's voice is larger and has a lot more weight.

The Opera posted a video from the sublime Act IV love duet, which is probably the high point of Troyens. This may be from the DVD of the production, which was filmed at Salzburg. I think you'll "hear" my points about Villars and Polaski.

I'll write on Bryn Terfel later today. He rocked Salle Pleyel last night; I believe they're repairing the roof as I write this.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

No, I do not have naked pictures of Catherine Naglestad

Come on, people. Catherine Naglestad has got to be the most frequently Googled opera singer in Europe. My site meter is exploding with entries revealing naglestad salome as Google search terms. I've also gotten a few catherine naglestad nude or catherine naglestad naked pictures searches. I know these people are not interested in her voice or her portrayal. They want to see her breasts and her

I attended my third Salome of this run last night. It was not the strongest of the three. But there were some good moments.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Les Troyens

So, I went to opening night of Les Troyens at the Bastille. I'm going again on Sunday, so I'll have more to say. The most exciting part for me was hearing Eric Cutler. I'll write a little more on this later.

I tried for a fifth and final Lucia tonight, but, alas, it was sold out. I was a little disappointed, but I'm happy I got to see it four times.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Live in the moment

My friend Sarah passed this along: "Heppner, Levine, Pape, Scotto and Voigt Win 2006 Opera News Awards."

Awards are always silly (Michael Cunningham once said it's like a bunch of people getting together and deciding that the bell pepper is the best vegetable), but people in opera don't have many chances to be recognized, so this is sort of nice. It's interesting that three of the four singers are best known for their Wagner. Rene Pape is one of my very favorite singers. Voigt's Salome is big news this year--I'm so curius about how that will turn out.

Renee Fleming, as the most famous opera singer working today, is such an obvious choice for this award that they'll probably wait a decade to give it to her. Domingo is the only other singer as famous, and he got it last year, because he's old.

This reminds me of something. There was a point, around 2000, when Kiri Te Kanawa, the most famous and popular soprano for a couple decades, became a legend. The opera queens stopped bashing her and began praising her Strauss and Mozart. She entered the pantheon of immortal legends.

Many years from now, it will be really interesting to see how this plays out with Fleming. When she's absent from the spotlight, people will start to remember what got her there in the first place.

Do a lot of people take our best singers for granted? Yes, and they're really missing out. People need to get off their couches and go to live performances. Opera wasn't meant for little computer screens and iPods. Those are good for archives, but don't sell yourself short.

Well, I take that back. I'm all for choice. Do as you please. If listening to scratchy old bootlegs of a dead singer gives you hours of orgasmic pleasure, then by all means. But there are great singers today, and we need to go out and hear them and support them--while they're singing, and singing well, not when they're mute or deceased "legends."


Amusingly, in reviewing performances of Te Kanawa qua legend, critics pointed out the simple elegance of her delivery, and contrasted this style with the "mannered" singing of Renee Fleming. In her prime, Te Kanawa's "simple elegance" was written off as bland and uninvolved singing. Will the expressiveness of Fleming's singing be one day recognized as a virtue?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Fourth Lucia in Paris

I'm sure glad I was there tonight. For a couple reasons. One, I love this production and cast. Two, some things went wrong tonight, and it was quite thrilling to see.

First, from Lucia's opening lines, I noticed that Natalie Dessay was having an off night. The first and third performances I attended were vocally perfect. In the second the voice was slightly vulnerable. But tonight, the voice was remarkably different. The tone wasn't as clear. There were a few breaks in her voice. I didn't have a pitch fork out, but I believe she replaced the high E-flat that she did on the other nights with a lower pitch (D-flat?) at the end of "Regnava nel silenzio" and at the end of the wedding dress scene. She compensated for the weaknesses, however, with ferocious acting.

A couple things went wrong on stage. The first was at the end of the Lucia-Edgardo duet. There's a swing in this production [when I stop feeling lazy I'll link to a previous post where I youtubed a video clip I took of said swing; in the meantime, you can just scroll down for it], and at the end of the duet, Edgardo pushes Lucia and they play around. He jumps in front before she swings back, etc. Anyway, tonight, at the end, something weird happened (I didn't see exactly what) and Matthew Polenzani didn't catch Dessay or she was unable to stop, and, with her standing on it, the swing kept swinging and jerked forward. She held on tight and kept singing. Polenzani looked a little nervous and shot a glance at Pido. Dessay could have easily fallen, and Pido would have had to stop the orchestra. The professionals that they are, the scene ended smoothly and the audience probably didn't notice.

The other mishap was significantly more dramatic, and I'm even grateful for it because it led to one of the most memorable scenes I have ever seen on stage. So, the set includes a bunch of large metal ladder-like things that fold across the stage. But something strange happened and the large folded ladder that's meant to create a huge triangle at the center of the stage did not descend properly. This triangle/pyramid contraption is important because Dessay climbs over it, up the left end, down the right end (where she slides down, actually) during "Spargi d'amaro pianto." It's quite fun to watch. Anyway, since it didn't descend properly, when she walked over there, a couple stage people (dressed as supers--maybe they were supers?) who had tried to fix it indicated to her that she is not to mount. Because she was distracted by this, Dessay eliminated the wonderful scream that she usually does just as the "il fantasma!" music plays, right before "Spargi".

She walked stage left, and knew she had to improvise. Boy, did she improvise! Because she didn't have this large thing to climb, she had to fill all of the dramatic space. She picked up a large hay fork that's used in the production--the priest holds up Lucia's dead husband's hat and a bloody cloth on it. Arturo (who is extremely creepy in this production) brandishes it at some of the young couples on stage. Anyway, as she's singing, she wields the very large tool. Since this clearly had not been rehearsed, it was a little odd--the hat and bloody cloth fell off at some point. Dessay brandished the fork at the characters on stage. At the end of the first part of the aria, she flung the fork on the stage with a loud crash. She picked up the bloody cloth and threw it across the stage. She kicked a couple balloons, and one fell in the orchestra put. Right before her last phrase (the famous "Ah" that ends in a climactic E-flat), she started trembling, looking utter confused, sad, ecstatic. I have never seen such intensity on stage. For the first time, she screamed after singing, crying out, laughing/sobbing. I'm not sure what state Lucia was in, but it was scary. The ambiguity made it even scarier. The lights stayed on her shaking body for longer than usual.

The ovations were intense. Her curtain call (in this production, the Opera allows a curtain call following the mad scene) featured a standing ovation. She glared at Pido (or someone)--It must have been tough for her to have to improvise dramatically.

The other news is that I've totally changed my mind about Polenzani. Yes, it took four performances, but I finally got it. It's possible that he's gotten better over the run. Or maybe he's just grown on me. I don't know. He has a rich, beautiful voice, and his high notes are remarkable. He can be ferocious or sweet. His pianissimi are the best I could imagine in a tenor. And dramatically I found him to be quite compelling tonight. His final scene remains the best, again drawing tears. And Dessay, who appears in this scene as a phantom or angel or something, is utterly beautiful. I'll never forget that gorgeous image. The opera ends, in this production, with Dessay leaning against the frame of stage right, laughing ecstatically in her gorgeous wedding dress.

Of the eleven performances, two remain. This was my last, and I'm delighted to have attended several performances of this exciting and beautifully sung production.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Dolly Parton

I somehow missed the news that Dolly is a 2006 Kennedy Center Honors recipient. The Honors are severely underpromoted. Perhaps this is a reflection of the majority of the honorees: tremendously talented people who have made enormous contributions to the very best of American arts and culture, but who are inevitably marginalized in mainstream culture.

(A friend mentioned that Jessica Simpson was on Jimmy Kimmel's show and, answering a question about role models, Jesscia singled out Dolly and revealed that her idol is receiving some big award (though she couldn't remember the award's name) and asked her to perform. I Google-searched and found the Kennedy Center press release.)

This would be a good opportunity to expand my much-delayed (over ten months) Dolly Parton post, which was to include a review of her Boca Raton concert on November 26, 2005. I'll see what I can do.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Life is messy, I always say

Come upstairs. I don't care why you come. No, that's not what I mean. Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is and I didn't know this either. But love don't make things nice, it ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes things a mess. We're not here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die! The storybooks are bullshit. Come upstairs with me, baby! Don't try to live your life out to somebody else's idea of sweet happiness. Don't try to live on milk and cookies when what you want is meat! Red meat just like me! It's wolves run with wolves and nothing else! You're a wolf just like me! Come upstairs with me and get in my bed! Come on! Come on! Come on!


Monday, October 02, 2006

Closing night of La Clemenza di Tito in Paris; Elina Garanca and Anna Caterina Antonacci triumph

More later.

UPDATE (10/3/06, 1:52am):

I know some people don't like this opera. I wasn't very fond of it when I saw the Ponnelle production at the Met in May 2005. But after tonight's performance, I can't help but love this opera, especially when it's played with such beauty and conviction.

This Herrman production at the Palais Garnier is quite different from the sepia Met production. The stage is so bright that each patron who buys a program is given a libretto whose cover reads (I translate): "The brightness of this production's scenery diminishes the legibility of the surtitles. For this reason, the Paris Opera offers you the entire French translation of the libretto of La Clemenza di Tito." From where I was sitting (a wonderful seat), I was still able to read the titles, though it was quite a strain on my eyes. Since the house lights were switched off, it wasn't really possible to read along with the libretto (and it was difficult to find your spot anyway, since the translation in the booklet was different from the translation on the surtitles).

At any rate, one of the highlights of this production: Vitellia's gorgeous costumes. What a joy to see Anna Caterina Antonacci, a major star in Europe who is unknown in the US. A beautiful woman, she has a powerful stage presence, and her equally powerful voice, though at times almost strident, can be downright thrilling. Her Vitellia was a convincing seductress, a cruel beauty who has no qualms about sacrificing Sesto's life for her own gain. We pity her when she reveals her treachery to Tito. We know how humiliated she must feel, but we also know that she has been cleansed of her evil by the constancy of Sesto. And Tito's clemency is a beautiful thing. It's karma!

Beautiful, youthful, and endowed with a golden voice, even more impressive tonight was Elina Garanca as Sesto. Radiant tone, flawless coloratura. And she actually looks and sounds like a beautiful youth. She got the loudest ovations of the night.

Ekaterina Garanca as Servilia and Hannah Esther Minutillo as Annio also gave lovely performances.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Salome in Paris a second time around

Today's matinee at the Bastille confirmed my suspicion on opening night: the company could have used another rehearsal before the premiere. The performance today, the run's fourth, was solid. Catherine Naglestad flourished in her portrayal and her shimmering voice soared.

More later--pictures too!

UPDATE (8:57pm):

Here is a photo of Catherine Naglestad's first curtain call. You can see Iokanaan's head on the silver platter, a couple of the veils, and a vase from which Salome drank wine as she battled with Herod for her reward.

More later. (And I haven't forgotten to elaborate on that Mozart concert.)

UPDATE (10/3/06, 2:21am):

I'm looking at the notes I scribbled during Sunday's performance.

Naglestad succeeded brilliantly in portraying Wilde's teenaged princess. She clearly and effectly sketched her take (the director's take?) on Salome's motivation. When she hears Iokanaan's voice, she's horrified and aroused at the same time. She says to Narraboth, with glee and fascination--and with a huge smile--that Iokanaan says horrible things about her mother. Naglestad's girlish grin is remarkable.

One memorable line is her lovely delivery of "the son of man", where she repeats Iokanaan's phrase, in the same melody. Iokanaan tells her there is only one who can save her, the son of man. She sings, "the son of man," transfixed by Iokanaan, and one might think that she's seriously interested in what he has to say. But, softly and innocently, she then asks, "Is he as beautiful as you, Iokanaan?" No, no one can save her . . .

In this production, Iokanaan is tempted by Salome--there's a strange dance between the two following his cursing of her. He moves to touch her, and then resists. This choreography reinforces Salome's motivation in this production: she's a woman scorned.

Taking up this point, just before Salome dances, she looks towards the cistern (in this production, a large cage that slowly glides in from stage right; see my opening night post for a production photo) and points. After the dance, as she's naked, Naglestad grins mischievously at Iokanaan, who is on stage (his cage slides in at some point during the dance and remains there until some point during the Salome-Herod power struggle). Her expression seems to say, "I'm gonna getcha!"

Naglestad gave a ferocious performance, as the copious sweat on her face would attest. She's a major star here--I've gotten a large number of hits to this blog from European (mostly German) visitors Google-searching her name and "salome" and/or "paris"--and it's not hard to see why.

Chris Merritt was really an outstanding Herod. There was so much to like about his performance: his strong voice, his wonderfully amusing antics (one of the funniest: after Salome sings, "I would like, on a silver platter . . .", he picks up and plays with one of her veils, laughing and covering his head with it--when she sings "the head . . .", he removes the veil and looks surprised, then horrified when she sings "of Iokanaan"). Jane Henschel also an effective Herodias, rather understated and elegant. We pity her when she watches in horror as Salome kisses the head--Henschel backed away slowly and disappeared into the palace, her eyes never wavering.