Archive for the Opera Category

Una Grande Vociaccia

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , , , , on December 2, 2018 by telescoper

Had she still been alive, December 2nd 2018 would have been the 95th birthday of the most renowned opera singer of her time, Maria Callas.

She was born in 1923 in New York city of Greek parents who had moved there the previous year, and christened Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou. Her mother, disenchanted with her deteriorating marriage, abandoned her husband (Maria’s father) and took Maria and her sister back to Athens in 1937. Maria enrolled at the National Conservatoire of Greece the same year after winning a scholarship with the quality of her voice, which

was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations.

At this age, Maria was a rather plump young lady with a rather deep voice. Initially, she aspired to be a contralto but at the Conservatoire she was encouraged instead to become a dramatic soprano. Accordingly, she underwent special training to raise her natural pitch (or tessitura) and learned how to control her remarkable voice more accurately so she could sing in a sufficiently disciplined fashion that she could take on the dazzling coloratura passages that she would perform in later years with such success. She also worked on her chest tones to broaden the scope of her voice in the mezzo region. Although she became more technically refined as a singer during this period, there were some things that didn’t change. One was the sheer power of her voice, which is something that we tend to notice less in these days of microphones and studio recordings. People who heard her sing live confess to being shocked at the sheer scale of sound she could deliver without amplification. Perhaps more tellingly, she eschewed many of the devices sopranos tended to use to control the highest notes, usually involving some alteration of the throat to produce accuracy at the expense of a thinner and more constricted tone. When Callas went for a high note, she always did so in a full-throated manner. This often produced a piercing sound that could be intensely dramatic, even to the extent of almost knocking you out of your seat, but it was a very risky approach for a live performance. Audiences simply weren’t used to hearing a coloratura sing with such volume and in such a whole-hearted way. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was certainly remarkable and often very moving. It was this aspect of her voice that led her friend Tito Gobbi (who sang with her in Tosca) to call it una grande vociaccia, which I translate in my schoolboy Italian as meaning something like “a big ugly voice”. That isn’t meant to be as disparaging as it sounds (Gobbi was a great admirer of Callas’ singing).

Having listened to lots of recordings of Maria Callas I have to admit that they are certainly not all good. Sometimes the voice didn’t come off at all. Unkindly, one colleague said that she “sang with her ovaries”. When she talked about her own noice, Callas herself often referred to it as if it were some independent creature over which she had very little control. Anyway, whatever the reason, when she was bad she was definitely bad. But I adopt the philosophy that one should judge artists (and scientists, for that matter) by their best work rather than their worst, and when Callas was good she was simply phenomenal, like a sublime and irresistible force of nature. That’s why they called her La Divina.

Although her talent was very raw in the beginning there was no question that she always had a voice of exceptional power and dramatic intensity. When she started singing professionally she immediately attracted lavish praise from the critics not just for her voice but also for her acting. As a young soprano she sang in an astonishing variety of operas, including Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, neither of which one would now associate with Callas.

It was in the late 194os that Callas began to take an interest in the type of opera that would really make her name. Bel canto opera was rather unfashionable at that time, probably because audiences preferred the grittier and more realistic verismo style. Virtually single-handed, Callas resurrected the bel canto canon by injecting a true sense of drama into works which had previously just been seen as vehicles for the singers to demonstrate their art. Callas brought an entirely new dimension to the great operas by Bellini (Norma, I Puritani, La Somnambula…) and Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena), although she was sufficiently versatile to also perform brilliantly in the verismo syle of Verdi and Puccini as well as lesser known composers such as Giordano (Andrea Chenier). Recordings of many of these performances are available, but it is sad that this glorious period of her singing career happened just a bit before high quality equipment was available so the true glory of her voice isn’t always evident.

In 1953, Callas decided that she wanted to change her appearance, perhaps so she would look more appropriate for the parts she was playing on stage. At the time she weighed almost 200lbs. In order to lose weight as quickly as possible, she followed the barbarous but highly effective expedient of swallowing a tapeworm. She lost 80lbs in a matter of months. The dramatic loss of weight changed her body and her face, emphasizing her high angular cheekbones and giving her a striking look very well suited to the opera stage. But it also affected her voice somewhat, especially at the upper end where she seems to have found it more difficult to avoid the dreaded “wobble” which was one of the alleged imperfections that critics tended to dwell upon.

Callas also had very poor eyesight which required her to wear very thick spectacles in order to see at all, a thing she refused to do onstage with the result that she was virtually blind during performances. In fact, during a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden she leant too far over a candle and her hair caught fire. Improvising magnificently, Tito Gobbi, as the loathsome Scarpia, extinguished the fire by throwing water at her before the audience had noticed. Although they weren’t much use for seeing with, her eyes were a great asset for her acting, in turns flashing like a demon then shining like an angel.

After her weight loss, Callas was suddenly no longer just a wonderful singer but also a strikingly beautiful woman. Her career took a back seat as she started to revel in the glamorous lifestyle that opened up in front of her. Her voice deteriorated and she performed rather less frequently. Eventually she embarked on a love affair with Aristotle Onassis, a notorious serial collector of trophy women. She hoped to marry him but he abandoned her to marry Jackie Kennedy, widow of John F. Kennedy.

She never really recovered from the failure of this affair, retired from singing and lived out the last years of her life as a virtual recluse in her apartment in Paris. She died in 1977.

I had heard a lot about Maria Callas when I was younger, but the recordings that I listened to (generally from the 1960s) were really not very good as her voice was undoubtedly much diminished by then. I just assumed that, as is the case with many artists, the legend of Callas was all mere hype. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was listening to BBC Radio 3 and they played the final scenes of the great 1954 recording of Norma with Callas in the title role, conducted by Tullio Serafin. I was completely overwhelmed by it and tears flowed freely from my eyes. I’ve always had a tendency to blub when I hear really beautiful music, but as I’ve got older I’ve learned not to be embarrassed by it. At least I don’t cry at football matches.

In England, Callas is probably best remembered for her performances in Tosca in Covent Garden. I have recordings of her in that role and they are really wonderful. But there are many fine recordings of Tosca by other singers, some of which are almost as good. In the case of Norma, though, there isn’t any other performance that comes within a mile of the Callas version. Or if there is, I’ve yet to hear it.

Now I know that there are some people, even opera lovers, who just don’t get Callas at all (just look at the comment boards on Youtube). I grant that she wasn’t always the most accurate singer, and I don’t think you could say her voice had a purely classical beauty. But even if you don’t like her voice you have to admit that she revitalized the opera stage and brought a new public into the theatres. I can’t imagine what the state of opera would be now, if there hadn’t been a Callas and you can’t argue that she is now an iconic figure. What I admire most about her is that, like it or loath it, her voice is instantly recognisable. In this sense, she always puts me in mind of a kind of operatic version of Billie Holliday. She’s a far cry from the many bland mediocrities that pass themselves off as opera singers nowadays.

I’m going to end with the obligatory clips from Youtube. There’s a lot of Callas on there, not all of it good. I’ve chosen a couple of items, although neither of them has a proper video. The first was performed live in 1955 in front of the notoriously difficult audience at La Scala in Milan and recorded from a radio broadcast so that the sound quality is quite poor. A studio recording of this aria, from Andrea Chenier, features most movingly in the film Philadelphia. This live version, however, is notable for a number of reasons. One is that you get some idea of the power of the Callas voice in the way she pushes aside the entire orchestra and is even able to cut through the distortions introduced by the rather primitive recording technology. The second thing is that she sings it so beautifully, with such feeling, lovely phrasing, and so much colour and vitality. Listen to the way the texture of her voice matches perfectly her changing emotions as she tells her story. The shattering, climactic high C that occurs near the end is a perfect example of what I was saying above. She stabs this note out like her life depended on it. It sends shivers down my spine and clearly had the same effect on the audience. The thunderous applause that follows the end of this aria is quite frightening in its intensity, but gives a good idea how much her public adored her. If you can put up with the lo-fi recording, this is certainly a better performance than the studio version.

The final piece has to be from Norma. I think Bellini is a wonderful composer of opera, but he doesn’t make life easy for the singers. There’s never any doubling of the vocal line by the orchestra so the singer is very exposed. This doesn’t bother Maria Callas. This is the famous aria Casta Diva, which has become a kind of signature tune for her and it’s one of the pieces that she always seemed to perform beautifully. It might be a bit hackneyed but I love it and, after all, it’s my blog. There’s also a nice compilation of pictures.

I’d be interested to hear what the general opinion of Callas is based on a sample of the two or three people who read my blog, so please feel free to add your comments!

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R.I.P. Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 6, 2018 by telescoper

I woke today to the very sad news of the death, at the age of 85, of legendary Opera singer Montserrat Caballé.

By way of a small tribute to marking the passing of one of the true greats, here she is singing the beautiful aria Signore, ascolta! from the Opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. As the title suggests, you should listen to the whole thing because it’s lovely, but be prepared for something truly astonishing from about 2.16 onwards as the singer demonstrates unbelievable control by holding that final high note in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible..

R. I. P. Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)

An Interview with Lauritz Melchior

Posted in Opera with tags on March 10, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve written more than once about the great tenor Lauritz Melchior, and the other day I came across this fascinating interview with him recorded when he was in his eighties and was living in America.

It’s full of interesting comments, but I have to say that above all I just love the way he speaks. English spoken with a Danish accent sounds so wonderful to my ears, especially with that tendency to inflect downward at the end of words. It sounds wonderfully lugubrious.

The Greatest Scarpia

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are always busy so today I’ll just put this here. It’s the great operatic baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia in Tosca, a role he sang almost a thousand times in his career. This is the Te Deum scene, at the end of Act I, in which Scarpia after sending his men to follow Tosca to her lover Cavaradossi, he sings of his lustful desire as worshippers gather fora service at the Church in which the action takes place.

There have been many excellent interpreters of the role of Tosca (in which role I think Renata Tebaldi was every bit as good as Maria Callas) but Tito Gobbi (who sang the role with both Callas and Tebaldi) was the Scarpia of his age, and perhaps of any…

WNO Tosca

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on February 12, 2018 by telescoper

My current schedule takes me back and forth across the Irish Sea, making it a bit of challenge to take in as many musical events as I’d like to, but I did manage to get to see yesterday’s performance of Tosca at Welsh National Opera. I don’t usually go for afternoon performances, but this was basically my option. Not surprisingly there was a packed house in the Wales Millennium Centre for a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Tosca is an opera in three acts (which means two intervals wine breaks…). It’s a melodrama, and is set in Rome in 1800. Each act takes place in a very specific location within the Eternal City. Act I is in the Church of  Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and the final denouement of Act III takes place among the battlements at the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo overlooking the Tiber. The setting is so specific to time and place that it resists being monkeyed about with, done in modern dress, staged in a chip shop or whatever. Thankfully, Michael Blakemore’s production (of which this is a revival) is very firmly of the period and location required. As a longstanding opera bore, I have to admit that I have been on a Tosca pilgrimage and have visited all three locations in Rome. The scenery used in last night’s performance isn’t exactly as the real locations but it definitely evokes them very well.

Floria Tosca (Claire Rutter) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Hector Sandoval), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Mark Doss), Chief of Police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch Tosca and Cavaradossi too. He lusts after Tosca and hates Cavaradossi. In Act II, we find Scarpia at home eating dinner for one while Cavaradossi is being tortured in order to find out the location of the escapee. Tosca turns up to plead for his life, but she hasn’t bargained with the true depths of Scarpia’s depravity. He wants to have his way with her, and to put pressure on he lets her listen to the sound of her lover being tortured. She finally consents, in return for Scarpia’s promise to let Cavaradossi go and grant free passage to the two of them. This he seems to do, but while she is waiting for him to write the letter of conduct she sees a knife. Instead of letting Scarpia defile her, she grabs it and stabs him to death. Act III begins with Cavaradossi facing execution, sure he is about to die. Tosca is convinced that this is just a charade and that Scarpia ordered them to pretend to shoot Cavaradossi so he wouldn’t look like he was being merciful, which would be out of character. The firing squad fire and Cavaradossi falls. But it was no fake. He is dead. Tosca is distraught and bewildered. Shouts offstage reveal that the police have found Scarpia’s body and that Tosca must have murdered him. To avoid capture she hurls herself from the battlements. Her last words are “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” – “I’ll meet you before God, Scarpia”.

Hector Sandoval (Cavaradossi) and Claire Rutter (Tosca). Picture credit: WNO.

The opera wasn’t particularly well received when it was first performed in 1900, being famously described by one critic as “a shabby little shocker”, but it has become a firm favourite with audiences around the world and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of music drama. So how did Puccini manage to transform a penny-dreadful plot into a great work of art? I don’t think it’s hard to see why it works so well.

First and foremost, there’s the music, which  is wonderful throughout, but it is always plays an essential part in keeping everything moving. Of course there are the great arias: Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore sung by Tosca in Act II and E Lucevan le Stelle from Act III, sung by Cavaradossi; but even apart from those tremendous set-pieces, Puccini uses the music to draw out the psychology of the characters and underline the drama. Although not usually associated with the use of leitmotifs, Puccini deploys them throughout: Scarpia’s arrival is announced with a suitably menacing theme that recurs whenever he is present or even just referred to.  This theme is actually the first thing we hear as the Opera starts. It also plays Scarpia out at the end of Act 1 when he sings his magnificently chilling Va Tosca over a setting of the Te Deum. Time does stand still for Tosca’s great Act II aria, the dramatic fulcrum of the Opera, but that just emphasises the pace of the rest of the piece. This is a work with no spare flesh or padding anywhere, and a perfect interplay between music and action. The moment when Tosca sees the knife with which she will kill Scarpia is signalled by the orchestra.

And that leads to the second point. Each of the three principals could have been very two-dimensional: Cavaradossi the good guy.; Scarpia the bad guy; Tosca the love interest. But all the characters have real credibility and depth. Cavaradossi is brave and generous, but he succumbs to despair before his death. No superhero this, just a man. Scarpia is a nasty piece of work all right, but at times he is pathetic and vulnerable. He is monstrous, but one is left with the impression that something made him monstrous. And then there’s Tosca, proud and jealous, loving but at the same time capable of violence and spite. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. In this production, she doesn’t just stab him once: she chases him around the room repeatedly plunging the knife into him, then stands over him  as he begs for help. There’s no attempt to sanitise the violence of his death. It’s all so real. I guess that’s why this type of opera is called Verismo!

Top marks for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under the direction of Carlo Rizzi, who did full justice to Puccini’s magnificent score. Claire Rutter has a fine voice for the role, and I thought Hector Sandoval sang and acted wonderfully. The big numbers in Tosca are quite familiar, but they still sounded fresh and were performed with great feeling. Best of all, Mark Doss has a dark baritone voice that gave Scarpia a tremendous sense of power and danger. He even got a few pantomime boos at the end.

 

 

From the House of the Dead in Southampton

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

It has been very hectic around here since I got back from India last week, so I’ve only just found time to do a quick review of Welsh National Opera’s production of From the House of the Dead which I saw last Friday at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I was away for the two performances of this Opera in Cardiff earlier this month and when I mentioned to a couple of friends of mine from London that I was hoping to catch it while it was on tour we decided to compare diaries and see if there was any way we could go together. And so it came to pass that we all ended up in Southampton, me returning to Cardiff through Storm Brian the next day, and Joao and Kim flying off to Cape Verde for two weeks from Gatwick Airport.

Anyway, to the Opera. From the House of the Dead is by Leoš Janáček, and is based on the autobiographical novel of the same (or similar) name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is set in a Siberian prison, in one such establishment Dostoyevsky himself spent four years of his life. It’s a grim story that starts with the arrival of a nobleman, Goryanchikov, to start his sentence. He is stripped of his fine clothes, beaten and tortured, then joins the wretched ensemble of captives until he is unexpectedly released at the end of the Opera. In between the prisoners take turns to describe their life stories, holding on to the past as people do who perceive that they have no future. There is little plot other than this series of narratives apart from a quasi-comic interlude provided by an Easter `show’, in the form of a pantomime. The work is in three relatively short acts which, in this production, run together without an interval. The whole performance lasts about 90 minutes. The picture above, taken during a previous run of this production in Finland, conveys the look and feel of this revival of a production by David Pountney that was first performed in 1982.

From the House of the Dead was written in the last years of Janáček’s life and was not performed until two years after his death. It opens with a prelude that reminded me a lot of his superb String Quartet No. 2 (`Intimate Letters’), written around the same time (1928) but whereas that work is about the nature of love, this Opera is about loneliness, isolation and brutality. The musical score is very rich and varied, but the vocal lines rather constricted, as if to emphasise the sense of captivity. It’s also really an ensemble piece rather than one in which the principal vocalists stand out from the chorus. This works very well for Welsh National Opera, as the chorus of WNO is exceptional. The Orchestra, under the direction of Tomas Hanus (himself a native of Brno, where Janáček lived for much of his life), played superbly, bringing out the subtleties of the orchestration by adding contrasting notes of optimism and hope to the intense, unrelenting darkness.

In short it was well worth the trip to Southampton, even if it did take me five hours to get home via two trains and a rail replacement bus service. This production has deservedly been very positively reviewed in the national media and I strongly recommend you see it during one if its remaining dates, in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol or Llandudno.

WNO Eugene Onegin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick review of my second opera of the new season at Welsh National Opera, Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which I saw on Friday evening. This Opera, based on a famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin continues this Autumn’s Russian theme, though it is very different in style from Khovanshchina which I saw last week.

The plot revolves around the eponynmous character Eugene Onegin who is dashing and handsome but also arrogant and self-centred. Young Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, and writes him an an impassioned love letter but he haughtily dismissed her advances, not least because she is a simple country girl. Onegin then decides to flirt with Olga, girlfriend of his best friend Lensky who, infuriated, challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky in the duel then, in remorse, Onegin travels abroad for many years (during which he grows his hair long but apparently doesn’t change his suit). He returns to St Petersburg and attends a posh shindig only to find Tatyana all grown up and the belle of the ball. Now that she has some social standing he now finds her desirable, but it turns out that she’s married (to a Prince no less). Though she still fancies him – Heaven knows why, as Onegin is not at all a likeable character – she puts loyalty before passion, and Onegin is left alone with his regrets.

Tchaikovsky’s music is very beautiful, with memorable arias and passages for the chorus. The most famous piece is, of course, the Polonaise that opens Act III. I have to admit that although I’ve heard this piece dozens of times I never knew how to dance the Polonaise before seeing this production. Here’s what it looks like (from a rather more opulent production):

This production has a conventional design and overall look, and is none the worse for that. It’s very much a piece about a particular time and place. Classic countryside settings are contrasted with beautiful ballroom scenes using a simple but effective staging involving a wall across the entire stage with a large rectangular gap in the centre. This aperture is used as a window, or a grand door for the interior scenes but also as a clever way to suggest outdoor settings. The only problem with this device is that it does restrict the stage area quite a bit, so the ballroom scenes look a bit cramped. Costumes are in period style, their rich colours complementing the rather simple staging. Onegin makes his first appearance in black, complete with a top hat, looking rather like an undertaker.

The Opera is in Three Acts, adding up to seven scenes in all. That makes for quite a few changes of scenery and two intervals or, as I call them, wine breaks. The kind of opera I like best of all is the kind with two intervals…

Nicholas Lester (baritone) was a fine Onegin in a role that’s challenging mainly because the character is so unsympathetic; he does get to sing some lovely music. Natalya Romaniw (soprano) sang and acted beautifully, her transformation from country girl to high society lady was very convincing. Miklós Sebestyén (bass-baritone) took the singing honours, though, with a stunning vocal performance that was very warmly received by the audience. It almost goes without saying that the WNO chorus were excellent, but I’ll say it anyway.

P.S. The house was pretty much full, by the way, which is good news. I just wish more people would turn up for the less familiar works!