February 2009 - Posts
A friend of mine who has never been to an opera performance or seen an opera DVD etc is always making fun of opera and laughing about the funny cartoons he sees on Television with fat women in Viking helmets etc . He also loves the great cartoons with Eler Fudd and Bugs Bunny ,I'll kill da wabbit " sung to the Ride of the Valkyries etc. He's always kidding me about being a fan of classical music and opera.
Of course, I take all this in stride and try to humor him. I try to explain the truth about opera to him, saying that while I love those classic cartoons too, he has a lot of misconcenptions about opera, and blindly accepts stereotypes about it. In fact, if you're knowledgable about opera, those cartoons are even funnier, because you get the in jokes !
Like too many people, my friend thinks that going to the opera is a ridiculous stuffy experience, with rich people dressed in tuxedos and expensive gowns , fat people in silly costumes singing at the top of their lungs. He also says he would not want to go to the opera because he doesn't like to wear tuxedos. Of course ,I explained to him that most people dress casually, and some just come from work in their busines suits etc. He also thinks you have to be rich to attend the opera, and that tickets cost $1,000 . Wrong again. At the Metropolitan Opera, tickets range from about $25 to $350. The top tickets are certainly not cheap, but let's face it, it costs an awful lot of money to pay not only the singers, but the orchestra, chorus, stage hands, and the army of people it takes to produce opera.
In fact, the only time when audiences really dress up is on gala opening nights of the season, when rich and famous people DO show up. There's no dress code in opera houses.
I also explained to my friend that opera singers, particularly the younger female ones , are not necessarily fat and ridiculous looking. He's never seen Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming, or other star sopranos and mzzo sopranos who definitely eye candy.
I asked him if he would be willing to see DVD performance of a complete opera, explaining that most come with English subtitles available. Maybe, he said . Maybe there's hope.
The Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts for March will be Puccini's beloved Madama Butterfly on the 7th, Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka on the 14th, La Sonnambula bt Vincenzo Bellini on the 21st, a new production, and Wagner's Das Rheingold on the 28th, part of the complete Ring Cycle. If your local radio station does not carry the Met broadcasts, you can hear them on the internet at Sirius channel 78.
Madama Butterfly is the story of a handsome but callous young American naval officer stationed in Nagasaki,Japan, who arranges a marriage with a teenage Japanese girl , Cho Cho San , or Butterfly ,only to abandon her soon to go back to the states, where he takes an American wife. Butterfly is ostracized by her family for abandoning her faith except for her faithful maid, Suzuki. Unknown to B.F. Pinkerton, her husband, she gives birth to a baby boy. She retains her childlike faith in Pinkerton as her husband, but when he returns with his new wife, she is devastated and commits Hari-Kari .
Puccini's music for this tragic tale is typically gorgeous, and makes ample use of Japanese local color and melodies. Many of the most famous sopranos of the 20th century have sung the role of Ch Cho San, such as Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto, Anna Moffo, MIrella Freni, etc, and recorded the opera.
Dvorak's Rusalka (accent on the first syllable) is the only one of his ten operas which is frequently performed outside the Czech Republic, and was not even well-known outside of there until recent years. This is a Czech fairy tale about Rusalka, a wood nymph , who falls in love with a handsome young prince who frequents the forest and river where she lives with her sister water sprites and her father , the water spirit.
She seeks the help of the local witch to transform her into a human being, and when the prince sees her, he instantly falls in love and brings her to his palace. But the condition for her transformation is that she is unable to speak. The prince soon tires of her and marries a foreign princess who soon abandons him too.
Rusalka returns dejectedly to the forest The witch tells her that in order to become a water sprite again, she must kill the prince, but she is too horrified to do this. Rusalka is now doomed, neither human nor water sprite. The prince returns to the forest and dies in Rusalka's arms. Another tragic story , but with with gorgeous music. You'll find both the story and the music unforgettable and haunting. The renowned American soprano Renee Fleming , who has become world-famous for singing Rusalka is featured. You can also hear her Decca CD of the opera and see her in the role on DVD. Don't miss her ,period.
La Sonnambula, or the Sleepwalker, by Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801- 1835) is a charming and melodious opera set in a Swiss village, and is a gentle,pastoral tale of a near tragedy this time, with a happy ending. Amina is an innocent young orphan girl who has been brought up by her foster mother. She is engaged to marry a handsome young villager named Elvino. When the long lost son of the late Count returns, the villagers welcome him. But unfortunately, Amina is a sleepwalker, and she unwittingly finds herself in the young count's room. The villagers and Elvino assume the worst, and her fiance calls off the marriage.
But when it's disovered that she's a sleepwalker , the whole unfortunate incident is cleared up, and the young couple are free to marry. It's a pretty slight story, but quite charming and melodious, and is a typical example of Bel Canto (beautiful singing) opera. The role offers plenty of opportunity for vocal display. The opera has not been done at the Met for nearly 40 years, and the new production features the charming French soprano Natalie Dessay, and the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, who has become something of a matinee idol,not without reason, as her betrothed.
Finally, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) is the first part of Wagner's monumental Ring of the Nibelungen , andl kick off the Met's last presentation of its Ring , which dates from the mid 80s, and will be retired until a new production appears in the near future. Wagner called the four Ring works Music Dramas, not operas, and the whole cycle consists of about 16 hours of music ! Das Rheingold is in four continous scenes without an intermission.
This is the tale of the Germanic gods and goddesses, evil dwarves, giants, water nixies, a magic ring which makes its owner all powerful but which has a terrible curse on it, a magic sword, and much more. Tolkien denied it, but he must have been influenced by this allegorical fairy tale. It's the struggle for world power, full of treachery, greed, hate ,love, magic, heroism and cowardice. It begins in the Rhine, and also has a scene in the bowels of the earth inhabited by the Nibelungs, dwarves who are skilled in making swords and smithery. The god Wotan is determined to win power at all costs, and the evil dwarf Alberich is his mortal enemy. In the later Ring dramas, we meet the superhoer Siegfried, Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie, and various other characters, gods and human. The struggle for the cursed ring leads to the downfall of the gods.
Wagner's sweeping music , with its myriad orchestral colors ,is absolutely enthralling if you concentrate. People who find the Ring boring just haven't made the effort to appreciate it on its own terms.
There's a very interesting discussion of audience behavior at concerts ,past and present at Greg Sandow's blog at artsjournal.com. Research about concerts and opera performances from the past has shown that audiences behaved very differently in the 18th century from the way they do today.
Instead of listening quietly as they(mostly) do today, audiences were much more noisy and demonstrative at performances. They applauded between ,ovements of symphonies and concertos, unlike today, and sometimes applauded in the middle of a performance too. There is a letter by Mozart to his father Leopold about a concert in Paris where one of Wolfgang's latest symphonies was played. In the middle of the piece, the audience applauded at a passage it liked particularly. Mozart was delighted by this.
At opera performances, audiences would often make comments about how well a singer was doing, and boo lustily at times, and cheer at others, not waiting for arias to finish as today. Some people would ignore the boring parts between spectacular arias, and wait until the stars sang. In the boxes, wealthy people would chat, flirt, play cards, eat dinner etc, also waiting until it was time for star singers to strut their stuff.
Today, at the Metropolitan opera, audiences may occaisionally get bored or distracted and let their minds wander during a performance, but nothing like what happened at performances in the past happens. Now we have problems with cell phones and other distractions, which never existed before. And audiences at the Met have the very valuable English translations on the seats in front of them during performances. Other opera houses project translations onto the stage for audiences.
But Sandow thinks that performances are too stuffy and reverent today, and wishes that audiences today would be more like those of the past. Really ? When you go to the movies, do you like to have the people around you talk and distract you constantly ? Of course not. Why should it be any different at concerts and opera. ?
If you're listening to a complex work that's unfamiliar to you, possibly hearing an orchestra play a new work, you want to concentrate on the music. What's wrong with that ? I sometimes have problems myself with my classical music program at United Hebrew Geriatric Center in New Rochelle. My group meets in the library, and we close the doors because people are always outside and talking,or watching Television on the giant screen.
Sometimes audience members come in late or have to leave early, and this is very distracting to the others. Othertimes, employees here barge in with something they have to do and make noise and talk. Others in the room are using the computers for the residents etc. And I often play works which are not familiar to the audience, and they want to concentrate.
I don't want to sound snobbish, but much classical music is not written for casual entertainment. It can be very complex and require carefull listening. But it's worth it. There is a quote in Latin which is written in sculpture at the famous Gewanfdhaus concert hall in Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany : Res Severum Verum Gaudium.- Serious things are the true joy.
This is another great opera I've been listening to in my quest to borrow opera recordings from my library which I haven't heard. I already have a live recording with the great Berlioz conductor Sir Colin Davis leading the London Symphony, but the one I borrowed is with the renowned Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony, his former orchestra, and is a stidio recording.
Les Troyens (The Trojans) is the longest and most monumental work by this visionary 19th century French composer. It is based on Virgil's great epic poem The Aeneid, which tells the story of how the hero Aeneas escapes from the destruction of Troy with his band of Trojans and meets with queen Dido of Carthage in North Africa , and despite their great love is compelled by the gods to abandon her and found Rome. The grief-stricken Dido dies on a funeral pyre.
Berlioz had been enthralled from childhood by Virgil's great epic poem, and in the 1850s he wrote the libretto for his monumental two part opera. The first part deals with the capture of Troy by the Greeks with the legendary Trojan horse, and the second part retells the story of the Trojans in Carthage. Berlioz completed the opera, but it was never performed complete in his lifetime; it was simply too difficult and lengthy. The entire work is about four hours long, and the Parisian premiere performances did only the first part. It was not until the 1950s that the work was performed complete at the Royal Opera in London. The first Metropolitan opera performances were in 1973, and there has been a more recent new production there.
Other characters in the opera are Cassandra, daughter of king Priam, who is cursed with the prophetic knowledge that Troy is doomed despite the rejoicing of the Trojan people, her fiance Corebus, Narbal, Dido's chief advisor, Ascanius, the young son of Aeneas, sung by a soprano. There are also many small parts, and an important role for the chorus.
The score is majestic and sweeping, with moments of grandeur, tender lyricism, exotic North Africal local color, and fierce conflict between Trojams and Greeks. There are ballet sequences and colorful pagentry. The opera calls for a large orchestra and the orchestration is extremely colorful as one expects of Berlioz. The opera ends spectacularly, as Dido, consumed with grief expires on the funeral pyre, predicting how the Trojans will found Rome.
There is a DVD of a Metropolitan Opera perfomance from the 1980s conducted by James Levine which may or may not be available, as well as at least one production from Paris. And there is the classic world premiere recording on Phillips records with Sir Colin Davis and the orchestra and chorus of the Royal opera in London, with Jon Vickers as Aeneas . As far as I know, there are no performances of this monumental epic this opera season, but don't miss this masterpiece on CD or DVD.
This is an ongoing argument in classical music, and it's rather like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. Of course, without composers to write the music, musicians would be useless. But without skilled and imaginative performers, the greatest music is useess. Often, the composer has been the perfomer, either conducting or playing the violin, piano or some other instrument.
Some famous composers have lamented that audiences at concerts and opera are more interested in the virtuosity of famous violionists and pianists , the high notes of opera stars and the glamorous image of superstar conductors than whether good new symphonies, concertos and operas are being written, and to some extent they are right. The noted American composer Ned Rorem, who lives in the same New York apartment building as the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, has complained in print that Perlman earns more for one appearance than he does from his music in one year. Possibly he could write a concerto for him !
Many composers have been angered by what they consider to be the shameless way that some musicians , particularly conductors, use their music as a means for self-glorification and playing to the audience, and flying in the face of the composer's intentions. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), was especially bitter and sarcastic about this. He felt that musicians should not "interpret" his music, but just faithfully execute the notes and to let the music speak for itself.
But notation is an imperfect and imprecise thing. it's rather like a blueprint. It can only give the musician so much information. And composers have been known to conduct or play their music differently on different occaisions. Even Stravisnky's recordings of his own music show this. There is no one right way to perform any given work. And many composers have EXPECTED musicians to use their discretion and interpret the music with some freedom. They do not all expect pedantic literalism.
For example, in operas of the 18th century by composers such as Handel and his contemporaries, operas consist largely of a succession of arias, with non-melodic,speechlike iinterludes between them accompanied by harpsichord and solo string instruments called Recitative. The recitatives further the action and are often conversations between the characters. The arias freeze the action. Arias are what is called Da Capo form, in three parts. The opening section is followed by a contrasting middle section. Then the score indicated D.C.,or Da Capo.Go back to the beginning and repeat the first part. But singers were not expected to repeat the first part exactly as before. They would decorate the melodic line in an elaborate manner, gussying up the melodic line.
Until fairly recently, before much was known about the way these operas were performed, singers would just rpeat the first part exactly. This is totally wrong, and now singers decorate and embellish the music. Audiences and the composers would have been outraged to hear these arias undecorated when the operas were new.
As music developed over the centuries, composers became much more specific in their instrucions in the score about how the music should be performed; previously there was far less. Beethoven proivides much more information about the tempos he wants, the exptression , dynamics(loudness and softness), speeding up the tempo or slowing it, etc than Bach ever did. His scores are pretty much devoid of induications about how to play the music. Musicologists have done much research about this, and they often disagree, as well as performers, critics and audiences.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was extremely specific about all the nuances he wanted in performance, and his scores are so full of written instructions that one wag observed that the only thing you don't find in a Mahler symphony score is "No Smoking !". Still, there is plenty of leeway for the perfomer. Perhaps the relationship between composer and performer could be described as a kind of symbiosis.
If you haven't seen any new posts from me recently, it's due to a computer malfunction which keeps me from completing posts and keeps throwing mne off the internet before I finish. It's very exasperating. Will try to fix it as soon as possible.
This is a trick question. As far as I am concerned, no one composer is the absolute greatest , just as there is no one greatest conductor, pianist, violinist, cellist, or opera singer etc. There are and have been many great composers, as well as so many great performing musicians.
Trying to figure out who is the absolute "greatest" is absolutely futile. The problem is that we tend to equate the most famous with the greatest, and this is not necessarily the case. To say that Johann Sebastian Bach is ONE of the greatest composers of all time is self-evident. Of course he is. Some people would call him the greatest, but there are other truly great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.
Of course, if you happen to prefer the music of composer X to composer Y, you could say that X is the greater composer. Not every one ranks Bruckner and Mahler or Richard Strauss among the greatest composers, but I do. Some say that Stravinsky is the greatest composer of the 20th century. He is definitely among them, but there are other greats from this cenury such as Prokofiev, Bartok, Schoenberg, Ives, Elliott Carter, Olivier Messiaen and others. Yes, Stravinsky is definitely one of the most famous, important and influential,.but is he the greatest ?
It's the same with performing musicians. Many would say that Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was the greatest violinist of the 20th century, and possibly of all time, and he has certainly become a legendary figure, and the symbol of great violin playing. He was a child prodigy, showed astonishing technical assurance as a small boy, and went on to conquer the musical world with his playing, leaving many recordings which are still classics.
Many other violinists have been intesely envious of his incredicle technique and falwless intonation. His abilities seemed almost superhuman. But is Heifetz THE greatest ? Not necessarily. Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Szigerti, Itzhak Perlman, Gidon kremer, Anne-Sopie Mutter, Joshua Bell, Jacques Thibaud, and others are all very great too, each in his or her way. Some of these are living, some deceased.
The great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973), was a friend, colleague and colaborator with the great Bela Bartok, who wrote some works for him. He wasn't the most slick or dazzling violinist, but a great and profound musician. He wasn't as superficially famous as Heifetz, but possibly the greater purely as msuician.
Amongnists, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) ,has become a symbol for razzle-dazzle virtuosity, and his technique was indeed stupendous. He specialized in the supremely difficult piano works of Rachmaniniv, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and others. He became a legend for his reclusiveness, rarely perfoming in his later years and turning his sporadic recitals into publicity events. Every time one of these rare recitals was announced, tickets would instantly sell out.
Contrast this with Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel (1882- 1951), who was anything but a flashy pianist out to dazzle audiences with technical fireworks. Schabel specialized in the piano music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, and was not interested in technique per se but in communicating the essence of the music, and wrestled with its philosophical and spiritual meaning. He was more of a thinker than a virtuoso. In sheer technique, Horowitz could play circles around Schnabel, and the older pianist did not like to practice, so his performances could be less than note-perfect at times. But audiences did not care.
There have been many great conductors since the 19th century, including such legendary names as Toscanini, Stokowski, Bernstein, Furtwangler, Koussevtzky, Reiner, Szell, Beecham, Monteux, Klemperer, Mengelberg, Nickisch, Walter, etc among the deceased, and Abbado, Barenboim, Levine, Previn, Gergiev, Maazel, Rattle, Boulez, among the living, to name only a handful. Some would call the legendary Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) the greatest, but agains, this is equating the most famous with the greatest.
Rather than wondering who is the "greatest", who don't we just except each great composer or performer on his or her own terms, and forget about idle speculation ?
I've been listening to a recording of Debussy's only completed opera, Pelleas et Melisande, first performed about 105 years ago . It's a strange and rarified work, not for every one and perhaps not suited to operatic novices who will want a more straightforward and fast-moving opera such as Tosca, which I discussed recently This mysterious opera is based on the play by the same name by the Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, whom Debussy knew and from whom he obtained the right to set the play operatically.
The opera is set in an imaginary kingdom long ago called Allemonde , and the characters include the aged king Arkel, his daughter, and her two sons prince Golaud and Pelleas , who are half-brothers, Golaud's young son Yniold by his firsr wife, and Golaud's new wife Melisande. The whole mood of the opera is dark, mysterious brooding, and highly astmospheric.
In the opening scene, Golaud is wandering in the forest and comes across a beautiful girl who is very nervous and taciturn. He asks who she is and what she is doing there. But she says nothing but"Don't touch me,don't touch me". She won't reveal anything but her name Melisande . Golaud takes her to his ancestral castle to meet his family, and he soon marries her despite her mysterious origin and terminal shyness.
Golaud's younger half brother Pelleas is taken with Melisande, and the two spend time together innocently conversing and spend time exploring caves and the mysterious inner recesses of the castle. They engage in almost childlike play. Eventually the two kiss. But Melisande declares that she is not happy in the gloomy castle.
But Golaud is growing increasingly jealous and even paranoid about the situation between his young wife and his half brother. Melisande is now expecting a child who will be a half sibling to young Yniold. But the two young people continue to meet in the forest secretly. Consumed by Jealousy, Golaud kills Pelleas with his sword but wounds Melisande only slighty.
In the last scene, Melisande has just given birth to a baby girl, but is dying. Golaud is consumed by remorse. She dies, and the aged king Arkel says that it is now the newborn infant's turn. The opera ends quietly and with questions unanswered..
What is one to make of this enigmatic story ? It's any one's guess. But you should just surrender yourself the the hypnotic glow of Debussy's impressionistic music, its half tints and evocation of mysterious forests, dank caves, and ancient castles. This is no conventional opera with arias, duets, trios , and chorus commentating on the action (there is a samll role for chours though,just for atmosphere). Instead, the characters declaim in a non-elodic speech - like manner following the prosodyy of the French language.
There are a number of highly regarded recordings of Pelleas &Melisande on CD, conducted by such eminent conductors as Charles Dutoit, Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan, Ernest Ansermet and others, plus at least one DVD. Try this haunting work and fall under its mysterious spell.
Ever since I became a classical music freak as a teenager, I have read every review of performances and recordings and article or commentary piece I could get my hands on, whether in newspapers or magazines etc. Now,on the internet, there is an unprecedented amount of classical music criticism available to any one interested, despite the unfortunate fact that many newspapers have been cutting down on their coverage of classical music and and dismissing their classical reviewers.
It's always interesting to compare your own reactions to this or that performance or recording you've heard with those of a critic, or just to see how they react to something you haven't heard. And to see how vastly different the reviews of two or more creitics can be to the same work, performance or recording. One critic may review a concert by a conductor and an orchestra and describe the performance as terrible, even disgraceful, while another critic covering the same performance may say it was one of the greatest concerts he or she had ever heard !
This has certainly happened to me in reading reviews. Some of my favorite classical rcordings have been trashed by some critics, and others I positively loathed have been held up by some to be the ultimate recorded versions of certain works. And it can be infuriating when a critic hates a particular work by a composer which you love or that composer's music as a whole. Or waxes lyrical about a composer whose music you can't stand.
What makes a good classical music critic and what are the qualifications ? There is no one way to become a professional music critic and no rigid standards of qualification. Some of the best have been composers themselves, such as Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann, and closer to our time, the American Virgil Thomson. You can still read their criticism, and it's well worth investigating. Others have been professional musicologists and scholars such as Thomson's contemporary Paul Henry Lang, who taught at Columbia University for many years.
Not all have been highly trained musicians, but sometimes journalists interested in classical music such as Claudia Cassidy of Chicago, who covered the Chicago Symphony and Chicago Lyric opera performances for many years (I don't remember which of the two top Chicago papers she wrote), and was feared for her stinging negative reviews. But many have been accomplished or at least decent pianists and violinists or played other instruments and have been conservatory or University trained and often with advanced degrees.
A good classical music critic should not only be able to write well and with an engaging style, but have a solid grounding in music theory, such as harmony and counterpoint, have a good knowledge of orchestration, and be well versed in music history, and familiar with a wide variety of classical music from all eras, not just the most famous masterpieces. It helps to have Catholic tastes and not favor the music of composers by style or nationality, although it's inevitable that critics will have their likes and dislikes, and to keep an open mind in listening to contemporary music.
Listening to new or recent works can be problematical. In many cases it's difficult to judge a new work on first hearing, unlike with films , drama or Television, which are much easier to judge . When an orchestra plays a new work, you don't have the luxury of repeated hearings, unless you are able to attend later perfomeances of the work that week. Major orchestras typically play the same program three or four times every week of the subscription season.
I was active as a reviewer back in the 80s while doing graduate work in music history at Queens College of the City University of New York. I volunteered to cover performances for the student newspaper and reviewed performances by visiting orchestras and other musicians at the Colden Ceneter for the Arts on Campus, and got a press pass. I reviewed performances by some well known musicians such as the renowned violinist Pinchas Zukerman and others, and it was a most interesting and rewarding experience.
Some of today's leading classical music critics are Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times, Alex Ross of the New Yorker magazine, Justin Davidson of New York magazine(not to be confused with the New Yorker), Anne Midgette of the Washington Times, John von Rhein and Andrew Patner of Chicago, Alan Rich, based in Los Angeles, Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe, Philadelphia based David patrick Stearns, and London based critics such as Andrew Porter. Jay Nordlinger covers classical music for the National Review.
You can easily find reviews of classical music at the New York Times and other newspapers and magazines by these and many other critics. Musicalcriticism.com, theclassicalsource.com are great ways to read reviews of classical performances in London and recordings. Classicstoday.com and classicalcdreview.com are excellect places for classical CD reviews.
The great tenor Placido Domingo is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his Metropolitan opera debut this season, and I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on the amazing career of this legendary opera singer, conductor and manager of opera companies. Domingo has just turned 68, and at an age when most opera singers have retired, is still going strong, and more active then ever.
His magnificent tenor voice is in remarkably good shape ; he has managed to avoid the vocal burnout which has shortened the careers of so many famous opera singers. He also maintains his second career conducting st the Metropolitan opera and other leading opera companies, as well as managing the opera companies of Washington and Los Angeles, and mentoring promising young opera singers. He has made who knows how many recordings of a wide variety of operas by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and many other composers, singing in Italian, his native Spanish, French, German , English and even Russian . He has also sung numerous concerts and solo recitals, appearing with virtually all the greatest opera singers of our time, and such great conductors as Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Carlos Kleiber, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Daniel Barenboim, and others. He can also be seen on numerous opera DVDs.
Few opera singers can match Domingo's amazingly wide range of tenor roles. He has sung operas by such famous Italian composers as Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, etc, French operas by Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saens, is one of today's leading Wagnerians, Zarzuelas (traditional Spanish operettas), Russian operas by Tchaikovsky, and even contemporary operas. In 2006, he created the title role in "The First Emperor" by Chinese-born composer Tan Dun at the Met. Domingo has also been active in crossover performances with some of today's leading Pop singers.
Unlike the stereotypicical opera tenor, short, fat, not too bright, all voice and little or no acting ability, Domingo is tall, handsome, a superb musician and most certainly can act. In fact, when the late,great Sir Lawrence Olivier saw Domingo sing Verdi's Otello ,based on Shakespeare., he was filled with admiration. Olivier was famous for his portrayal of Othello on stage. He thought that he himself couldn't have acted better ! Is there anything Domingo can't do ?
In a recent post I incorrectly stated that the Metropolitan opera's final performances of its traditional style Ring would be next season. These performances will in fact begin in March of this year, and will be on the Saturday radio broadcasts. My apologies.
2009 is the 250th anniversary of the death of the great German born, London Based composer George Frideric Handel, whose original name was Georg Friedrich Handel , who lived from 1685 to 1759. His great contemporary J.S Bach was born in the same year, but never achieved anything like Handel's success during his lifetime.
Both were great organists, but Bach never left his native Germany, and spent most of his life as a relatively humble church organist and choirmaster. But Handel was far more worldy. Bach married twice and fathered no fewer than twenty or so children, many of whom died in infancy. Four of his sons became well-known composers themselves. But Handel never married.
Handel was born in the city of Halle, which was formerly part of East Germany in the 20th century. He was the son a a well-known physician who opposed his youthful efforts to become a musician and composer. But the young Handel became an organ virtuoso and an accomplished violinist and harpsichordist. He traveled to Italy to absorb the Italian musical traditions and began to make a name for himself as a composer of operas ,cantatas and instrumental works, and settled in London in his 20s, which had a flourishing operatic and concert life.
Handel became an opera impresario, writing operas and running opera companies as well as performing often as a organist. He made contacts with music-loving English aristocrats, and achieved great success. I suppose you could call him the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, if nowhere near as crassly commercial. He wrote asn endless stream of operas in Italian. Among the best-known are Giulio Cesare(Julius Caesar), Alcina, Rodelinda, Rinaldo, and Tamerlano. His new operas were not always successful, but some achieved great popularity. He wrote for the greatest opera singers of his day who were superstars then, but forgotten by all but opera scholars and musicologists today, including the Castrati, or castrated males, the Rock stars of the 18th century.
Virtually all of these operas fell into neglect until the 20th century, when the great Handel revival began. Eventually, Handel gave up writing Italian operas and began to write such world famous English oratorios as the ubiquitous Messiah, and others such as Saul, Alexander's Feast, Jephtha, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Theodora, Semele and others.
Then there are such famous non vocal works as the "Water Music", an orchestral suite written to accompany king Goerge 1 on a barge trip down the Thames, the "Royal Fireworks" music, written to celebrate the end of one of the numerous European wars of the time, the Concerti Grossi, or works for several solo instruments accompanied by a larger instrumental ensemble, the suites for harpsichord, and other keyborad works etc.
There are also shorter choral works, such as anthems written for coronations and other official ceremonies, and much more. For many,many years the only Handel work one would hear with any frequency was the univerally beloved Messiah, which takes passages from the Bible about the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ set for orchestra, chorus and solo singers. The"Hallelujah Chorus" became one of Handel's greatest hits, and virtually every one recognizes it today.
There is a long standing tradition of audiences standing for this at performances, as supposedly, the king himself is said to have stood up at a performance. However, musicologists believe that the king was merely excusing himself to use the facilities ! Bach and Handel unfortunately never met, but both admired each other greatly, and later composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven shared this admiration, and diligently studied Handel's music, as well as Bach.
There are absolutely countless recordings of Handel's music avaiable, as well as DVDs of his operas. You can't go wrong with the perfornances conducted by such leading maestros as John Eliot Gardiner, Neville Marriner, Christopeher Hogwood, Colin Davis, Nicholas McGegan, Rene Jacobs, etc. You have your choice of recordings on modern intruments or period ones. The website gfhandel.org has all the information you could want about this great composer.
As the Metropolitan opera is scheduled to do a new production of Tosca next season, I thought it might be a good idea to say something about this tense , swift-moving yet melodious opera, which is one of the best operas for those who are new to opera. Puccini's previous opera had been the ultra romantic La Boheme, but Tosca could not be more different. It's a brutal, even melodrammatic story, but you won't be bored for a second by it.
The story is set in Rome in the year 1800, in the middle of the Napoleonic wars. The city is under the grip of the brutal and ruthless Baron Scarpia, chief of police, and sworn opponent of Napoleon. The beautiful and tempermental opera diva Floria Tosca is in love with the handsome young painter Mario Cavaradossi, who is also a member of the Italian resistance, and Scarpia is looking for an excuse to capture him. The first act opens in a chruch, where the painter is working on a portrait of the Madonna based on a Roman aristocratic woman, sister of Angelotti, who has just escaped from prison and is also a member of the resistance.
Angelotti is in the church, desperately fleeing from Scarpia's evil clutches. The painter helps him escape, and Scarpia and his henchmen are on the lookout. Knowing that Tosca is in love with Cavarodossi, Scarpia tries to manipulate her jealousy in order to capture both Angelotti and Cavaradossi, and have both hanged.
Due to a false report of Napoleon being defeated, a victory celebration is to held at which Tosca will sing. Scarpia is also in lust with the beautiful Tosca, and wants both Cavaradossi and her ! In the second act, the celebration is being held outside the villa where Scarpia is based. His henchmen have captured Mario, and Tosca is brought in and is told that the painter is being brutally tortured. If she wants to save him, she must confess and tell him where Angelotti is hiding. She is horrified by Mario's cries, but refuses to give in. Eventually she crumbles under the strain and tells Scarpia where the prisoner is hiding. Cavaradossi defies Scarpia, saying that napoleon will win and his tyranny will be crushed, and curses Tosca for revealing the secret.
Mario's fate is sealed. He is to be shot by a firing squad at dawn, and Scarpia's henchmen burst in saying that Angelotti killed himself when caught. But Scarpia strikes a deal with Tosca. He will allow her and Cavaradossi to escape secretly if she will let him have his way with her. A mock execution will be staged. Scarpia comes to embrace her, but Tosca stabs him with a knife she has been concealing saying" This is Tosca's kiss" ! Scarpia dies, and Tosca takes the safeconduct she has been given, but places candles around his body and forgives him. Scarcely believing what she has done, she mutters "And before him all Rome trembled"!
Just before dawn, Mario is being held for execution in the Castel San Angelo on the Tiber river, which you can still visit in Rome. He sings a bitter aria recalling his love for Tosca, and regrets having to die, since "He has never loved life so much. " But Tosca comes to see him, and tells him of Scarpia's plan to have them escape secretly, and that the shooting will be with blanks. The two sing a joyful duet, and the execution proceeds. But when Mario has fallen, Tosca finds out that she has been deceived and betrayed. Mario is dead ! Then Scarpia's henchmen come rushing in . One says that Tosca will pay for having killed Scarpia. But Tosca rushed to the parapet and jumps to her death, saying "O Scarpia, we shalll meet before God"!
That's a juicy melodrammatic story for you ! Puccini's music is bursting with great melodies and ripe lyricism. No wonder audiences have loved this powerful and passionate opera for more than a century. The role of the fiery diva has been a vehicle for such great sopranos as Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto, Renata Tebaldi, Galina Vishnevskaya, Birgit Nilsson and others. All of these have recorded the opera.
Great tenors such as Pavarotti, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo and others have also sung the role of Mario, and the ruthless Scarpia has been sung by such great baritones as Tito Gobbi, Sherrill MIlnes, George London, and others.
Many consider the classic 1950s recording of Tosca with Callas, DiStefano and Gobbi, conducted by the great Italian maestro Voctor De Sabata , to be the ultimate recording of the opera.It's on EMI, and still very much available. There are also a number of live performances on DVD. Whichever way, don't miss this opera.
I forgot to mention in my last post that the Metropolitan opera will be giving its last performances of its controversial but popular production of Wagner's mighty Ring of the Nibelungen cycle next season, which will be replaced in a couple of yearsroduction by the French Canadian director Robert Lepage, who made his Met debut recently with an innovative production of The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz.
Why is the current Met Ring controversial ? It bucks every current trend in staging and designing Wagner opera today. Many critics find it annoyingly old fashioned because it actually takes place in the kind of mythical Germanic world which the composer intended, instead of using all manner of arbitrary gimmicks which fly in the face of everything Wagner intended. You see real mythical German and norse gods, goddessees, superheroes, Valkyries, the mighty castle of the gods Walhall (Valhalla) and not gods dressed in contemporary garb such as dinner jackets etc, and 19th or 20 century sets which are completely anachronistic and which would have given Wagner heart failure if he could have seen these absurd productions.
But audiences at the Met love this traditional, non-gimmicky production, and many European operagoers who visit the Met find it refreshing, as they have seen so many of the wrong-headed productions. The trend began in 1976, when the world famous Bayreuth festival in Germany, founded by the composer, did a production to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first complete Ring performance when the unique festival theater opened.
This production set the Ring not in legendary times but in 19th century Germany. The gods were dressed like wealthy European capitalists and their wives; the three Rhine maidens, who guard the precious gold of the Rhine, were not water nixies but prostitutes hanging around a hydroelectric dam ! Wotan, chief of the gods, was dressed like a wealthy 19th century businessman yet still carried a speer, symbol of his power .
The timeless Ring became a not very subtle allegory about capitalist oppression. Audiences were scandalized, but the production lasted at Bayreuth for several seasons and actually came to be accepted. You can still get it on DVD. And later productions in Europe became even sillier, and the trend has yet to peak, at Bayreuth also.
There are high hopes for the next Met Ring; director Lepage will use computer technology as he did in the Berlioz production and it appears that the new Ring will be utterly unlike the current Met production or those in Europe. Lepage has designed production by the acclaimed Canadian Cirque de Soleil. Let's hope for the best. You can also get the current Met Ring on DVD.
The Metropolitan Opera has just announced the details of its next season, the first planned entirely by its general manager Peter Gelb, who took over in 2006, and has brought many welcome innovations to the venerable company, America's oldest , largest and most prestigious. Despite serious financial difficulties, the Met will offer a season of enormous diversity of repertoire, mixing familiar and unfamiliar operas ranging from Mozart to the 20th century, featuring the world's greatest opera stars and distinguished conductors.
Unfortunately, financial problems have forced the cancellation of several much-anticipated revivals, such as 'The Ghosts of Versailles" by American composer John Corigliano, which was a smash hit at its world premiere at the Met in 1991. Other cancellations include "Die Frau Ohne Schatten"(The Woman Without A Shadow, by Richard Strauss, an elaborate allegorical fairy tale with some of the most gorgeous music ever written, and"Benvenuto Cellini" by Berlioz, a brilliant opera about the legendary Florentine renaissance goldsmith and rogue. The savage,lurid but powerful Shostakoich opera"Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District" has also been cancelled.
These were elaborate and expensive productions , and unfortunately had to be sacrificed for economic reasons. But there are still no fewer than nine new productions, including three operas which the Met had never done previously. Most US opera companies do fewer than nine productions a year.
The three operas new to the Met are Verdi's early "Attila", a story about the conquest of Italy by the "Scourge of God", and merciless leader of the Huns. The Italian pronunciation of Attila is accented on the first syllable, not the second as commonly heard in English. The eminent Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, who will soon become music director of the Chicago Symphony, will make his long overdue Met debut.
"From The House of The Dead" is the last opera by the great Czech composer Leos Janacek, (Le-osh Yanachek), and is a grim and powerful story of life in a 19th century Siberian prison camp. The opera is based on the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is a highly unconventional opera with jagged , harsh but never ugly music which also contains passages of soaring lyricism. There is no plot as such, but you see the grim daily lives of the prisoners with unsparing realism. The opera was premiered posthumously in the late 1920s. Janacek was a close contemporary of Puccini, but no two composers could be more different.
"The Nose" by Dimitri Shostakovich is one of the most bizarre and outrageous comic operas of all time. I'ts based on Ukrainian writer Gogol, and is the wildly surrealistic tale of a Russian civil servant in St Petersburg whose nose dissapears from his face and causes havoc all over town. I kid you not, the nose is actually a character in the opera sung by a tenor ! The met has never seen anything like this crazy masterpiece.
Other new productions will be "Hamlet" by the once popular 19th century French composer Ambrtoise Thomas, a entertaining and melodious opera which is shamelessly unfaithful to the original Shakespeare play, and new productions of such operatic staples as Puccini's Tosca and Bizet's Carmen, and the fanciful Tales of Hoffmann by the 19th century German born but Parisian based operetta composer Jacques Offenbach, famous for his racy Can-Can. This is the composer's only full-fledged opera:.the rest of his stage works are frothy, sparkling and irreverent operettas.
Rossini's opera "Armida" based on legends from the crusades , is the story of a Saracen sorceress Armida, who falls in love with one of the leaders of the crusades, with tragic results, and will star the glamorous and golden voiced Renee Fleming, who has made a specialty of this role. Armida has been absent from the Met for nearly a century or so.
Other returning operas include such beloived staples of opera as Verdi's Aida, Simon Boccanegra, La Traviata and the less familiar early work Stiffelio, and such Puccini favorites as L:a Boheme and the three opera Trittico. Mozart will be represented with The marriage of Figaro and the Magic Flute, and Rossini's familiar Barber of Seville will also be performed, as well as such familiar German operas as Ariadne Auf Naxos and Elektra by Richard Strauss, and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. The sordid and kinky atonal opera "Lulu" by Alban Berg will also return. This is not the best opera for operatic novices or children, but it's definitely worth trying .
There will also be nine High Definition broadcasts to movie theaters across the US. It's good to know that despite problems, the Metropolitan opera is alive and kicking. Go to the Met's website, metopera.org for more information.
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