June 25, 2014

Blog-to-blog rebuttal: my list of difficult arias

As I write this, Facebook is rippling with multiple posts of a blog on Listverse.com with the headline:"Top 10 Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias"

What's that? You're shocked to learn that there are other opera blogs in addition to this one? I know, I know - this will be a big adjustment for you. But it'll be okay.

Lists like this have two goals. First, there is the overriding goal of attracting page-views. (We don't do this for our health, people.) Second, to provoke discussion and debate.
Rogelio de Egusquiza's "Tristan and Isolde"

I'm here to discuss and debate.

First, let's review the Listverse choices, in case you were too lazy to click on the link above. (Some of you just can't be bothered to lift a finger. Tsk tsk tsk.) Here they are:

10. The Modern Major General from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

9.  Largo al factotum from Rossini's Barber of Seville.

8.  Großmächtige Prinzessin from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos

7.  Martern aller Artern from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio

6.  Di quella pira from Verdi's Il Trovatore

5.  Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire from Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau
4.  Credeasi, misera from Bellini's I Puritani
3.  Ha, wie will ich triumphieren from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio
2.  Der Hölle Rache from Mozart's Magic Flute
1.  The Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor

Now then, what to make of these? First of all, the inclusion of anything from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas? Pardon me, but you've already lost me and we're one aria in. The only thing remotely difficult in Major-General Stanley's patter showcase is, obviously, managing all those syllables at top speed. But how difficult is that? It's just a longer version of the old McDonald's jingle: Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.

When I was a kid, there were friends of mine who could not only fire off those words at super-sonic speed, but could also do it BACKWARDS. 

The truth? Whenever I do one of my opera appreciation lectures at a retirement community and I mention Gilbert and Sullivan, the odds are good that an elderly resident will approach me afterwards and proudly launch into some patter song or other, holding me captive prisoner while he displays his Mad Patter Skillz.

Patter is like riding a bike; it's really really hard at first, but once you "get it" it's never difficult again for the rest of your life. Give a break, Listserve.

Moving on, let's consider No. 5, the tenor aria by Adolph Adam, a composer better known for having written the now-hackneyed Christmas chestnut "O Holy Night", beloved of wobbly church sopranos everywhere. I don't think much of this choice either. In fact, I harbor dark suspicions that it was included to demonstrate the author's esoteric knowledge of rare literature.

The aria has one hurdle, and one hurdle only: a high D near the end. Other than that one moment, it's a fairly bland ditty in the tenor's lower-middle range. I would counter with "Celeste Aida" from Verdi's Aida for two reasons: 
  1. The tenor playing Radames has no chance to warm up. Other than a brief recitative, the aria is the first thing out of his mouth. Singing "cold" like that is cruel and unusual punishment. And
  2. While the top note is a "mere" B flat, the challenge is to sing it as softly as Verdi demanded, molto pianissimo. There are few tenors who manage that, particularly as the role really calls for a trumpet-voiced dramatic tenor. Other than Jon Vickers, few of those have been up to the task. Whereas tenors singing the high D in the Adam aria are, in effect, yelling their heads off on pitch. 
But let's not dilly-dally with our little nit-picks. Let me just post my own durn list, with commentary as needed.

NOTE: these are in no particular order. They're all, like, really hard, dude!

10. Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, the Prize Song from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Again, context has a lot to do with gauging difficulty. The Prize Song occurs at the END of the opera, and I've never heard any tenor, no matter how legendary, make it through to the end without sounding like he was pushing a jeep out of a ditch or passing a hundred kidney stones.

9.   Großmächtige Prinzessin, or No. 8 from the list above. We're in agreement here. What's hard about the number is that it's very very long; the Zerbinetta has to have comic chops while she's tossing off her coloratura; and it's become traditional to stage the piece with a lot of physical "business". No "park and bark" for Strauss's clown-ette.

8.   Martern aller Artern, No. 7 above, so another point of agreement. However, my fellow-blogger's commentary does not mention the truly remarkable aspect of this  unique aria: it is really an instrumental composition in which the soprano voice is merely one of the instruments. The form of the aria resembles a sinfonia concertante, more or less like a concerto featuring more than one virtuoso soloist. This places special burdens on the soprano playing Constanze.

7.  Salome's final scene from Strauss's opera of the same name. During Strauss's lifetime, it was not unusual for sopranos to sing the role but opt out of the "Dance of the Seven Veils", allowing a stand-in to shake Salome's royal booty. But these days, in the Age of Physically Fit and Ready-For-Video artists, no soprano would dare omit the dance. By indulging in an orgasmic several minutes of choreography, the difficulty of the climactic finale is thus increased several-fold. --Hey, YOU try it!

6.  The Mad Scene from Lucia. Yup, it's tough, no two ways around it. Again, you can't stand there like you're waiting for a bus and just vocalize; you have to ACT. The audience should be unable to breathe; held in the grip of creepiness and fascinated revulsion. YOU try it! 

5.  Libera me from Verdi's Requiem. Here I offer more of my philosophy about the definition of "horrifying difficulty". It's not automatic that really fast coloratura and/or really high notes above high C automatically get you on the list. Just as some people are so flexible they can easily bend their bodies into every yoga position imaginable, while others of us are as stiff as styrofoam, some voices are just gifted by Nature to have facility in matters of range and agility. The "Libera me" only goes to a high B flat, but what a moment! Again, it comes near the end of this mammoth choral work, and the entire range of a full lyric is exploited, including chesty bottom notes. But the end of the number tapers down to exquisitely floating pianissimos, and the final utterance
 on the word "requiem" involves the sudden leap of an octave up to that B flat. Trust me, it is a terrifying prospect for a tuckered-out soprano, worthy of peeing one's pants. There have been many disasters in live performances of the "OOPS, almost but not quite" variety. It's a moment where we separate the women from the girls, so to speak.

4.  È sogno? o realtà? Ford's monologue from Verdi's Falstaff. Just to, you know, provoke debate & discussion & everything, I'm inserting this number in place of Figaro's "Largo al factotum" above. While the Rossini aria does have the difficult aspect of being the first notes out of the baritone's mouth - he doesn't even get a stinkin' recitative - the chief difficulties are 1) high tessitura, and 2) that rapid-patter thing. Actually, the difficulty of diction increases when the aria is sung in English. It's the dirty little secret of Italian patter that the same words tend to be repeated over and over, whereas English translations avoid that particular cop-out and get a lot wordier.  Now, Ford's so-called "Dream aria" in Falstaff has a similarly high tessitura, but is less bel canto in the vocal writing. Ford's high notes are mostly explosive and violent expressions of comic rage, which means the singer is working much harder. And the final phrase, "Laudata sempre sia nel fondo del mio cor la gelosia" is a slow, sustained, Mt. Everest-like ascent up to a sustained high G, followed (on the same breath) by a secondary ascent to the final E flat. YOU try it! (I have - with no success.)

3.  Der Hölle Rache I have to agree with the famous "Queen of the Night" aria from Flute, even thoug there is precious little acting or even physical movement required of the soprano. It truly is "park and bark", but the opera world had never heard anything like it before. It belongs on the list.

2.  A te, O cara from Bellini's I Puritani. Just to be really poopy, I'm discarding the Puritani aria cited above and substituting another one from the same opera! Yes, that's pretty obnoxious, I'll cheerfully admit it. But to my (educated) ears, "A te" has a higher overall tessitura and seems more exposed. And it does call for a high D flat, so you have the double whammy of high notes plus high tessitura, plus lack of much support from the orchestra. You're pretty much naked out there, on a high wire like in the circus.

1. The Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It was either this or Brünnhilde's famous "Ho jo to ho" entrance in Die Walküre . Either way, omitting Wagner from a list of difficult soprano arias is a no-no. The Liebestod builds to a climax requiring super-human reservoirs of power to soar over an orchestral passage of historic intensity. Also, as we've stressed above, it comes at the end of a demanding opera. Good luck!.

THERE! Whatcha think, opera peeps?

June 15, 2014

Suggested roles for Placido Domingo

You have to admire a guy like Placido Domingo. After a lengthy career as a world-class tenor and the resultant wear-and-tear on his voice, did he retire to a secluded villa for a life of ease? Nope. Did he attempt to become an orchestral conductor or opera-company administrator?

Well, yes - with spotty results. But that's not my point.

No, the astonishingly admirable thing is that Domingo, his tenorial chops permanently frayed, continued his on-stage performing career. Like a baseball pitcher who, having lost his fastball, finds success on the mound by learning the knuckle ball, Domingo turned to the baritone repertoire and plowed ahead with singing gigs. Rigoletto, Boccanegra, the elder Germont, Count di Luna; one after another the baritone roles have been falling like dominos.

Now, to my ears, it's all a bit iffy because being a baritone isn't just a question of hitting all the notes of a role; it's also a question of timbre, weight, tone color and so on. I hear a tenor woofing around in roles with, let's just say, "inauthentic" results. But that's just me, and hey - a guy has to make a living, right?

The problem is that none of us can outwit Father Time, and eventually even baritone roles will prove too much for our aging icon to handle. But why should that stop him? A galaxy of roles within his compass will still be available! Here are just a few:

Another potential Wall in The Fantasticks
  • The Wall in the classic musical The Fantasticks (Yes, that's an actual role. Look it up.)
  • Buoso Donati, the dead guy in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. 
  • Toby, the mute boy in Menotti's The Medium
  • The Little Boy in Act 2 of La Boheme who plaintively wails that he wants a trumpet and a toy horse.
  • The Jailor in Tosca whose entire role consists of the summons "E l'ora".
  • The Page in Der Rosenkavalier, or alternately,
  • One of the children claiming Baron Ochs as their daddy in Rosenkavalier. The only vocal lines are a few iterations of "papa". You'd have to be in a bad way not to be able to pull that off...
  • King Duncano in Verdi's Macbeth. Yeah, another mute part, but a cool costume and an important role, plot-wise. Domingo, with his stage presence, could really bring some regal authority to Duncan's scene.
  • The Big Monster-Dragon Thing in The Magic Flute. And if it's done via one of those costumes requiring two people, i.e. one for the tail end and one for the front, well obviously don't put Domingo in the tail. I mean, this is Placido Domingo we're talking about. He's an icon, for Pete's sake - let him be the head.
  • The Prince of Persia in Turandot. One caveat: the Prince is, technically, a tenor, and his one line, delivered a moment before his beheading, consists of bleating Turandot's name for all he's worth on a high note. However, if Domingo experienced a vocal failure, this could be explained by, you know, the axe severing his neck and stuff.
And finally, if I ever realize my dream of adapting the movie Weekend at Bernie's into a full-length opera, you KNOW I'm going to offer Placido the chance to create the role of Bernie.

June 4, 2014

Retitling operas just like children's books

Ah, the Internet. Sometimes it seems as though we spend 2% of our online time donating to charities, learning French and writing novels, and 98% on cat videos and all those inane lists provided by Buzzfeed, Upworthy and, lately, eBaum's World. "The 20 happiest hedgehogs"; "The 15 most heartbreaking moments on Breaking Bad", etc. etc.

Those wacky scouts!
I'm no different - just this morning I found myself LOL-ing over an eBaum gallery of The 20 Worst Children's Book Titles Ever". These range from unintentional double-entendres born in a more innocent era (A story about Santa Claus called "The loneliest Ho in the world" and "Scouts in Bondage" are two choice examples) to simply horrific instances of dreadful taste ("Mommy drinks because you're bad"; "Feelings and how to destroy them").

NOTE: I'm pretty sure some of these are fake, but why let that ruin the fun?

Admit it, now - as you clicked through the titles at the link above, you really, REALLY wished you had each book at hand to see what it could possibly be like.

So, I got to thinking: what if standard operas were re-titled along similar lines? Might that not intrigue the public and tempt them to attend a performance instead of watching yet another rerun of "Law and Order: SVU"?

Let's see how hideously inappropriate, yet innocently childlike, we can be! Boy-o-boy!

OLD TITLE: "Die Walküre"
NEW TITLE: "My sister is pretty when she's naked"

OLD TITLE: "Dialogues of the Carmelites"
NEW TITLE: "A bucketful of nuns' heads"

OLD TITLE: "Der Rosenkavalier"
NEW TITLE: "You're too old to be my girlfriend"

OLD TITLE: "Lohengrin"
NEW TITLE: "Who wants to pet my swan?"

OLD TITLE: "Fidelio"
NEW TITLE: "Let's dress up like men and visit our boyfriends in prison"

OLD TITLE: "Turandot"
NEW TITLE: "Men are mean and probably smell bad"

OLD TITLE: "The Elixir of Love"
OLD TITLE: "I'm plastered and I love you!"

OLD TITLE: "The Daughter of the Regiment"
NEW TITLE: "I joined the army and got laid!"

OLD TITLE: "La Traviata"
NEW TITLE: "For a whore, you're really nice!"

OLD TITLE: "Don Carlo"
NEW TITLE: "I'm hot for my dad's wife"

OLD TITLE: "Hansel and Gretel"
NEW TITLE: "Hey, little girl, wanna gobble up my candy cane?"

OLD TITLE: "Il Trovatore"
NEW TITLE: "I sure didn't mean to burn THAT baby!"

OLD TITLE: "Falstaff"
NEW TITLE: "Fat people are so FUNNY!"

I feel VERY productive here. This blog has advanced the art form, in my view. You think so too, I can tell.

Oh, and I have good news. While some of the inappropriate book-titles are doubtless put-ons, I have ascertained that "Scouts in Bondage" is a REAL BOOK. Don't believe me? Read a review at this link

May 25, 2014

To Andrew Clark: Let's talk puppy-fat, bro.

Dear Andrew,

May I call you Andy? Hey Andy - you truly are suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune these last few days, aren't you, brother? (See how I threw in that Shakespeare reference there? I did that because you're British. Now that we've bonded, I shall proceed.)

Yeah, make one snarky comment about a singer being a "chubby bundle of puppy-fat" in your opera review, and suddenly everybody says you're, like, this bad guy or something.

I know the real problem, Drew. (Can I also call you Drew? Thanks.) You're not "bad"; you just "lack perspective.

I'm here to give it to you.  Observe the following images carefully. Take notes.




There's no need to thank me, An. (Can I call you An?) Tell you what: the next time you're in Newport News, VA, you can buy me a pint at my local tavern and we'll have a couple of laughs.

You moron.

May 23, 2014

Weighing in on opera singers' weight

Tara Erraught
Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught's appearance as Octavian in the Glyndebourne Opera's Der Rosenkavalier has brought about a tsunami of Internet discussion thanks to a batch of caustic reviews from a handful of opera critics in the London dailies. This post is basically one more drop of water added to the tidal wave. It's unlikely to change anyone's point of view, but hey - I'm a blogger. You didn't think I'd opt out, did you?

In case this is the first you've heard of this issue, here's a thumbnail summary. Tara Erraught is a gifted young Irish artist whose first career break came when she was signed to a contract with the Bavarian State Opera. Audiences in my neck of the woods will have a chance to hear her in person when she comes to the Washington National Opera to sing the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola next season. The consensus is that she sings beautifully and has a talent for acting as well.

Those critics I mentioned were generally in agreement about her singing and acting; it was another facet of the performance on which they attacked her like a swarm of nasty hornets.

They didn't like her physical appearance.

While none of them used the term "obese" (which would not have been accurate in any case), they still managed to convey their repulsion in shockingly barbed descriptions: "Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing", sniped the Times; "a chubby bundle of puppy-fat", sneered the Financial Times. Another critic wondered if the artist might be recovering from childbirth. Still another called her "dumpy".

The tsunamic reaction has been instantaneous and outraged. The distinguished mezzo Alice Coote published an open letter to opera critics in which she pleaded for the focus of opera commentators to settle on actual singing over any visual aspect of the art, including body types. Facebook, Twitter, and too many blogs to mention (of course THIS blog should ALWAYS be mentioned, granted,) have bewailed the condescension of the London critics, speculated on their physical appearance and generally vilified them.

What says Dr. Opera? I'll be brief, but I do have a take to add to the burgeoning mass of reactions.
Margarethe Arndt-Ober, the first Octavian.
Not what you'd call a "hard-body".

Pardon me, but I don't see why common sense can't apply here. I don't see anything complicated about the issue of an opera singer's physical appearance.

It's about balance. On the one hand, if one feels an artist has been miscast in their role - for any reason, it's fair to take note in one's review. On the other hand, there's never a need to be insulting and offensive about it. Critics who go out of their way to be snarky and cruel in finding fault and then say they are "just being honest" as claimed by critic Quentin Letts are falling back on facile rationalization. Cruelty at the expense of professionals doing their best is never justified.

While I can't argue with anything Ms. Coote says about the voice being the most important element in opera and the secret to its enduring appeal, it's also true that opera is not a concert.

It's theater. Is it a form of theater in which the action often defies any standard of logic or realism? Yes. Do mortally wounded people sing robustly for twenty minutes? Yep. Do exchanges of clothing constitute fool-proof disguises? Well, yeah. So what? Opera creates its own version of stylized "reality" and it IS theater.

This has always been the case, but in the last 40 years the visual aspect of "opera-as-theater" has gained more significance with the advent of videos, DVD sales, YouTube, and live transmissions into movie theaters. Accompanying this phenomenon has been the related phenomenon of the rise of the Stage Director in power and influence.

In the "olden days" when figures like Toscanini, von Karajan, Beecham and their baton-waving brethren ruled the opera world, the Conductor was Emperor; his priorities became the management's priorities. Stage Directors were glorified hired hands; service providers, if you will.  But in recent years Stage Directors have been imported from Broadway and Hollywood, applying the values of those genres to the art of music drama. It should surprise no one that, in this climate (which isn't going away anytime soon), we won't often see a matronly middle-aged Italian diva portraying Puccini's delicate fifteen-year-old geisha girl.

In those "olden days", 95% of opera-lovers experienced the art form via radio and recordings. So it didn't matter what the artists looked like. Speaking personally, I still count physical appearance dead last in my own concerns about casting, but face it: the "olden days" are not coming back.

I part ways with Ms. Coote when she comes close to suggesting that sets, costumes, and other visual elements are sort of irrelevant to the appreciation of opera. Again: this is theater. And the fact is that the reason Jonas Kaufmann is at the top of the heap among today's tenors is his happy combination of a thrilling voice with matinee-idol good looks. It's really cool when Siegmund looks like a demi-god and not uncomortably otherwise. But to begrudge Lauritz Melchior because, visually, he was no Kaufmann is indeed to miss the point of what provides most of the greatness of opera and always will.

The pathetic thing about this Rosenkavalier is that I've seen the production photos of Ms. Erraught as Octavian and there's really nothing to complain about there. Put any woman in proper wig, makeup and costume and she can easily be accepted as a man. Where does it say Octavian must resemble George Clooney, for God's sake? Holy crap, should Birgit Nilsson not have sung Salome, one of her signature roles? And how is it that a generation of opera fans embraced Pavarotti as a romantic leading man? He made Erraught's Octavian look positively athletic.

Speaking of athleticism, this is another point: opera singers are not just "actors"; in a real sense, they are athletes. Singing is an athletic activity. The blissfully ignorant public is generally unaware of the enormous physical strength and stamina required to sing a demanding principal role in a full-length opera. Are you of the opinion that only svelte figures can be fit and strong? Nonsense. There are some gigantic men playing on the offensive line on NFL teams who are "fat" by Hollywood standards but of Herculean strength, stamina and quickness. The great mezzo Marilyn Horne once defended her body-size by comparing it to space travel, saying "it takes a big booster rocket (i.e. physique) to get those space capsules (i.e. voice) into orbit." Very true. It's generally agreed that when Maria Callas slimmed down, her singing suffered.

But back to Pavarotti. To the London critics: at the end of his career, Pavarotti was a semi-crippled, unweildy cement block of a man who was mostly stationary onstage. So why was he cast in leading-man roles like Cavaradossi in Tosca? BECAUSE HE SOLD OUT THE HOUSE, YOU IDIOTS! Opera has enough troubles making ends meet as it is in our culture of "Amerian Idol" and "The Voice". Box-office appeal is not limited to those performers who don't bring out your caustic, snarky side.

Got it? To review: you can mention whether a performer looks the part they've been cast in, but you can't be a JERK ABOUT IT, OKAY??? It's the Golden Rule, people. Don't be cruel and then say, with wide innocent eyes, "I was just being honest".

And if the REAL reason you use your wit to attack people personally is that you sense your readers are amused by it, how about being honest about THAT? Don't worry, your papers won't fire you.

The truth is, they love it. It sells papers.

In conclusion, this whole tzimmes reminds me of how the musicologist and composer Walter Kaufmann described music critics: "goddamn dropouts".

For those Faithful Readers residing in my corner of the world: Tara Erraught will appear in the title role of Rossini's Cenerentola on May 11, 15 and 17 in the Washington National Opera production at the Kennedy Center. For information, go to this link.

May 22, 2014

The Top 10 Ways Peter Gelb is Trying to Cut Down on Expenses

It's no secret: the Metropolitan Opera is in big, big trouble. Labor negotiations are apparently going to resemble the conflict between Kashmir and Pakistan. Individual chorus members make a yearly salary of 75 million dollars a year (I looked it up) and are LOATHE, LOATHE, I tell you, to accept one penny less. The Met's endowment has foolishly been frittered away on Little Debbie snack cakes (those choristers also have a sweet tooth), and the whole kit and kaboodle is pretty much going to hell in a handbasket.


But never fear! Embattled General Manager Peter Gelb has a PLAN, people. He's taking FIRM, DECISIVE ACTION to confront this crisis and steady the ship. Yay! At our regular Tuesday night bowling date here in Newport News, Pete (I call him Pete) shared with me the outline of his plan. So put THESE in your pipe and smoke 'em:

Top 10 Ways Peter Gelb is Trying to Cut Down on Expenses

10.  Instead of costly pianists, rehearsals will be accompanied with karaoke tracks.

9.   Following the lead of the Boston Red Sox, no more fried chicken and beer in the Green Room. 

8.   Pictoral calendars featuring "Contraltos of The Met" will be on sale in the lobby during intermission. (psst - check out Ms. October!)

7.   Starting immediately, vocal artists will no longer sing boring recitatives, which will now be performed by audience volunteers. Pay cuts commensurate with reduced minutes of actual singing.

6.   Instead of prompters, singers will be allowed to carry iPads displaying their words onstage with them.

5.   Goodbye expensive and boring costumes; we're going down the street and pick up a few of THESE puppies:

photo courtesy of Nicholas Gemini
4.   Verdi's I Due Foscari will have only one Foscari. (Yeah, yeah, I've used this joke before. So what? You got a problem? It's a quality gag.)

3.   Salome? Three veils and that's IT. (Oh yeah, I'm on a roll now...)

2.   Supertitles will now be produced by Twitter, resulting in an efficient rendering not to exceed 144 characters.

1.  If all else fails, sure-fire fail-safe rescue plan: hit up the San Diego Opera Company for a loan!

May 11, 2014

The Met's Cenerentola: DiDonato retires from a role

Thoughts, reflections and memories inspired by my viewing of the Metropolitan Opera's HD presentation of Rossini's Cenerentola at my local Cineplex...

  • For an opera that no one would ever characterize as "brief", the time flew by. Why do some bel canto operas drag, and others sparkle? The material, or the staging? Both, I suppose.
  • I had not seen this opera nor heard any of the music in the 17-years that have passed since I was cast as Don Magnifico in a production of Virginia Commonwealth University's Opera Theater. As I watched the wonderful bass-baritone Allesandro Corbelli work his way through this gigantic role, I had a moment of clarity in which I was overwhelmed by a stark question: "How the HELL did I do THAT?" Also: "What were you THINKING?"  
    Me as Don Magnifico, ca. 1996. Buffo or goof-o?
  • I'm glad I can say I saw the final performance of Joyce DiDonato in the title role. I have to resist the temptation to call her a "goddess", an appellation commonly bestowed on practically every female artist the public favors. I resist simply because what makes DiDonato special is her humanity, not some aura of divinity. She's very much of this world right here. She could be a soccer mom; the girl you dated in college; your next-door-neighbor; a professional woman in some office building. She's real. Her eyes bespeak humor, intelligence, perception and easily-accessed emotions of every description. Attractive rather than gorgeous, she radiates the sort of positive energy that outshines even her flawless coloratura chops. 
  • Okay, what the hell - SHE'S A GODDESS. But... you know... like, a human one.
  • Quibble: the large ensemble that closes Act 1 was staged as a dinner for which there were not enough place-settings, leading to a slapsstick sight-gag of cast members fighting for a seat. Highly choreographed, it might have been fun to watch if not for the cameraman INSISTING on following the criss-cross paths of cast members as they migrated from chair to chair. It was dizzying in the way of televised hockey matches, where the erratic flight of the puck can make for hectic camera-work. I would have preferred the same panoramic view that the poor slobs sitting out in the Met's audience were afforded. 
  • Speaking of sight gags, I imagine one either adored or was annoyed by the "evil sister" act as presented by Patricia Risely and Rachelle Durkin as Clorinda and Tisbe. No middle ground. Over the top? Um, yes - that's a "yes" on that. Such mugging! The two of them made Carol Burnett look like Helen Hayes in comparison. It was funny a lot of the time, but let me say this about that: the sisters kept up their mugging, schtick and "business" even while other principals were singing solos. I gotta tell you, my stage career began in 1967 and continued through 2010; every single stage director I ever worked with would have CASTRATED me with a BUTTER KNIFE if I had taken the focus off an artist singing a solo. In "Glenn-World", it would be a cardinal sin to do anything remotely distracting while a colleague was singing. So: has this concept changed? Are audiences bored by arias now? Is this another attempt to inject "the dying art form of opera" with more audience appeal? The result, on this afternoon, was a cartoonish sensibility, which may in fact have been the goal.
  • I nearly did an unintentional "spit-take" of my water bottle at a moment during the intermission interviews. Our hostess, the soprano Deborah Voigt, was firing softball questions to Corbelli and the afternoon's Dandidi (Pietro Spagnoli) and Alidoro (Luca Pisaroni). Responding to Voigt's question about how one learns to sing Rossini's passages of rapid patter, Spagnoli explained in thickly-accented English how he starts by drilling at a slow tempo, gradually increasing the speed until it's up to tempo. "It takes a lot of rep", he said in conclusion, using the abbreviated form of "repetition". One problem: he used a very Italianate closed "e" vowel, so it sounded like our long "a". So it went like this, phonetically: SPAGNOLA: "Eet takes a lot of rape". VOIGT: "What?? It takes... what???"  For just a hot second, the color drained from Deborah's rosy cheeks before she realized what he meant and continued the interview. Priceless!
  • Though a university production at a school without a national rep (that's "reputation", smarty) in music, we did boast a pretty good young artist in the role of the valet Dandidi. That would be Matthew Burns, who went on to develop a busy and successful career as an opera singer. Here's his website. So remember: talent can come from anywhere, my friends. 
  • I enjoyed prancing around as Magnifico, but one particular memory of that time dominates all others and casts a pall over my nostalgia. On opening night my dad, Glenn Winters Sr., lay in the Intensive Care Unit of Williamsburg Hospital, having suffered a stroke either that day, or possibly the day before, I don't recall. His was literally at death's door; though he lingered on for several more months, he was never the same again. The rest of his days were a losing battle with dementia, unsuccessful efforts to re-learn how to walk, and a succession of rehab centers and nursing homes. I did not share this situation with the opera staff or the cast members; they had a night of comedy and very difficult music ahead of them. It wasn't a time to be needy.
  • As for the Met HD affair, I'm pretty sure that the excellent tenor Juan Diego Florez had no trouble beaming at his Cenerentola with fond affection during her triumphant final scene. Those two artists have a brother-sister relationship forged by many years of being onstage together. Mr. Florez, his singing done for the afternoon, looked especially emotional to me. Or maybe he's just that good an actor...
  • Speaking of Florez, let's talk tenors. I was mildly disppointed that the Prince was not being sung by the new "flavor of the month" at the Met, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times was positively gushy in his recent review. Florez, however, did not disappoint. (I found this video of Camerano singing his Act 2 aria.) Here's the difference between the two. Camerano, as you can hear on the above video, has an incredibly brilliant and well-placed top range, even topping Florez's high C with an interpolated high D. Florez, after several thousand high C's in his long career, had to work a bit harder to keep his support up there in the stratosphere. He's lost a smidgen of effortlessness. HOWEVER: Florez's phrasing is of regal elegance as it has always been. Camerano, in this short clip, was a bit more rough and ready, concerned less with phrasing and letting the "little notes" speak, saving his energy for those immaculate and electrifying C's and D's. We are fortunate, you and I, to be living in the Golden Age of Rossini Tenors. 
  • In conclusion: After 17 years cheerfully ignoring this opera, I can aver that it's a remarkably good piece, only slightly less clever than Barbiere di Siviglia. But will SOMEONE please explain to me the purpose of the thunderstorm in Act 2? Excuse me very much, but it is the most RANDOM thunderstorm in all of opera! NOTHING HAPPENS. NOTHING. In this production, Cenerentola ran around putting buckets under leaky places. Magnifico took an oblivious nap on the couch. After a while, it was over. LAME, ROSSINI ---  LAME. 
  • But let's not end on a sour note. What struck me about Rossini's telling of this fairy tale was its sweetness. Some Italian buffo comedies - Barbiere for one - are so farcical that the word "sweetness" doesn't enter into the discussion. But Cenerentola  becomes very touching when our heroine turns the other cheek and charms her dad and sisters out of their inclination to pout in the finale. Her good-hearted forgiveness of the abuse she suffered at their hands makes for a particularly warm ending. And when a warmly human interpreter like DiDonato is the source of the charm, well -- it's as good as bel canto opera gets.