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December Divas: “Beverly Sills Singing Songs for Christmas 1955”

Beverly Sills Christmas

Label: Unknown/nonexistent

There are some diva holiday albums that float to the top as the most famous- we’ll hear some of them as part of “December Divas.” Then, there are the more unsung (pardon the pun) ones, and finally, there are the obscure ones. And who would’ve ever thought that something produced by the late, great Beverly Sills would ever end up in a pile of obscure anything? Well, here we are, dusting off “Beverly Sills Singing Songs for Christmas 1955,” a 12-minute album that, according to Beverly Sills Online, was released as a promotional gift from the architectural firm of Fordyce and Hamby. Sills was 26 and just on the cusp of her stardom and presence at New York City Opera when she recorded the 5-track album. While hard copies of the album are rare to come by, it is widely available in digital format. The selections are all religious in nature, though the spare musical treatment of the pieces (only voice and organ, deftly played by Howard Kubik) keeps the album from sounding syrupy. At the time of the recording, Sills lacked some of the incisiveness that characterized her mature career, though the voice is fresh and gleaming, poor recording quality aside. The album’s first selection, “Gentle Mary,” an English translation of a charming Catalan folk song, is the high point. Sills is at her most expressive and has great support, both from the material and from Kubik. Her rendition of “O! Holy Night” (here called “Chantique Noel”) is a prime example of how Sills was not yet fully formed as an artist- not a bad take on the piece at all, but a take that lacks any of Sills’ signature warmth and spark. Similar is “Little Child Jesus,” which, though it has some excitement, is uneven in treatment, tone, and tempo. In fact, it is the slower tracks that have more success on this album. Sills lavishes more time and attention of a moving “Bless This House” that brings the album to a satisfying conclusion. It’s not a perfect Christmas album (and it could, arguably, be even better if there were more tracks on it), but it’s a charming collection of secular Christmas music and a significant historical document from the career of a great singer.

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December Divas: Angela Gheorghiu’s “Guardian Angel”

Angela Gheorghiu Guardian AngelLabel: MediaPro Music

What’s remarkable about Angela Gheorghiu’s “Guardian Angel” is that despite Gheorghiu’s thick Romanian accent and signature breathy voice, she still manages to connect deeply with some classic American songs, make them her own, and give them joy (“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”). Gheorghiu’s phrasing in English is sometimes odd and not every song on the album is cut out for the happy-go-lucky delivery almost every piece receives, but the holidays are about happiness, and this album has happiness in spades. The album is a good mix of American Christmas favorites, classic European carols, and a selection in Romanian that really gives the album heart. Fans of Gheorghiu’s operatic career will appreciate her vocalism on “Petit Papa Noel,” the album’s high point. Gheorghiu’s English diction is not always clear, but her connection with the music reaches far beyond any misshapen vowel, “s”-sound that turns into a stolen breath, or pitchy attack or release. Orchestrations (played with adequate enthusiasm by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra) range from bubbly to subdued to almost rockabilly (Who wants to hear “O Holy Night” played on a drum set?), and the chorus backing many of the tracks is perfectly good. In one track (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”), Gheorghiu duets with pop singer Loredana who sounds like Romania’s answer to Cyndi Lauper, though the blend of her and Gheorghiu’s voices doesn’t always click. “Guardian Angel.” the song for which the album is named, is given a nice interpretation, but like other classical singers that attempt to toe the line between opera and crossover, this unnatural style doesn’t always seem like a natural fit for Gheorghiu. However, surprisingly gutsy German diction during “O Tannenbaum” makes you wonder what could have happened if Gheorghiu had sought out a German role or two. The only truly misplaced track is a baffling rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with full chorus and orchestrations that sound like the theme song for a children’s television show. Incongruous with the rest of her work of the album, Gheorghiu cannot break from a strange, operatic delivery of the piece. Neither the French nor English performances of “O Divine Redeemer” make much case for the piece, which is unfortunate because the two renditions of it account for over ¼ of the time of the recording. All in all, though, Gheorghiu does a great job in this album. She takes some calculated risks, sings with abandon and joy, and, possibly the most important characteristic of any diva’s Christmas album, remains very much herself.

What are “December Divas”? Find out here.

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December Divas: Joan Sutherland’s “Joy To the World”

It really is the most wonderful time of the year. The air is frosty, trees and houses twinkle with colorful lights, and a Christmas carol is never far away. Speaking of Christmas carols, opera fans are particularly lucky in that so many opera singers have lent their voices to renditions of Christmas classics. While some divas have contributed songs to compilation CDs, just as many have recorded solo albums. Over this next month (Every Monday and Friday), I’ll be highlighting a new diva Christmas album. We kick off today with Joan Sutherland‘s resplendent “Joy to the World.”

Joan Sutherland Christmas

Label: Decca

“Joy to the World” (Elsewhere released as “Joy of Christmas”) was the first operatic Christmas album I really fell in love with, and the more I have listened to it, the more I have understood why I liked it so much. Sutherland was still very much in her prime in 1965 when the album was recorded and her vocal gifts are ever apparent. Though her problems with clear diction are evident, she manages to shape the familiar phrases of classic carols into something truly unique, and her bright, ringing voice communicates all of the joys of the Christmas season. The album consists of entirely Christmas standards (including the most sparklingly efficient renditions of “O Holy Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” you could ever hope to hear) with a couple less-predictable pieces spliced in. Douglas Gamley’s orchestral arrangements are bright, bombastic, and grandiose when needed (often), refreshingly layered and restrained in pieces like “O Divine Redeemer,” and balance nicely with Sutherland’s voice in vocal showcase songs (“Angels We Have Heard on High”). The singing is clean and ornaments are few and tasteful, though “Deck the Halls” ends the album on a literal and figurative “high note.” Sutherland’s husband and collaborator, Richard Bonynge, leads the New Philharmonia Orchestra in top form and the Ambrosian Singers provide a pleasant backdrop to some numbers, but they never overshadow the star (of Bethlehem?).

Be it a weakness in regards to continuity throughout the album or a strength in regards to Sutherland’s ingenuity and creativity, each song is given a different interpretation with different songs receiving vastly different treatments. There is not one overarching characteristic across the album as opposed to some singers who sing all Christmas music the same, but that means that every song presents an opportunity to be heard with fresh ears in Sutherland’s oft-inspired interpretations. “Joy to the World” is exactly what its title says it is: a joy to listen to.

 

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Roman Holiday: Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera

I think Tosca is harder to pull off than we give it credit for. The piece is so full of dramatic potential and the music is some of Giacomo Puccini’s most atmospheric and inspired, but to fully convey that, you need three singing actors at the top of their game, a taut orchestral accompaniment, and a production that that effectively balances the personal conflicts with the political ones while still acknowledging the libretto’s strict specifications about setting. Bringing these elements together is no small feat and the result can be massively rewarding. With that in mind, is it even possible to have a truly good “routine revival” of a Tosca that maximizes on all three of the key components? At the Met, at least, the answer seems to be no.

a-scene-from-act-ii-of-puccinis-tosca

The problem that lies in many Met performances of Tosca is that they have made the extraordinary painfully ordinary. In the case of the performance I caught on November 28th, the blame could belong to Richard Pedruzzi’s overpoweringly plain sets, Milena Canonero’s universally unflattering costumes, or Luc Bondy’s leaden, uninspired production, now six years old and still baffling in the worst possible ways (Why would Angelotti descend into the barren Sant’Andrea della Valle with a rope when there’s a ladder attached to the window on the other side of the archway? How come there are so many fallen leaves in a church in June? How come there is barely a desk in Scarpia’s office? And don’t even get me started on the stunt dummy, complete with Super Man-arms and all.). It might belong to Liudmyla Monastyrska (one of this season’s four Toscas and the one I saw on Saturday) and her wavering chemistry with her costars and seeming disinterest in Bondy’s production and tired blocking. Or maybe the culprit was Marco Vratogna’s overly suave Scarpia, or Joseph Colaneri’s conducting that, though exciting and evocative most of the time, sometimes stranded the singers when they fell behind the surging tempi. Tosca has always felt, at least to me, like a special opera. The character Floria Tosca is a celebrated diva. Shouldn’t performances of Tosca try to capture some of the excitement that would come from seeing Tosca herself perform? A performance of Tosca should be a special occasion, and many Met revivals of such a weak production have sucked all the special out of it.

Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role may yet not be naturally intuitive onstage, but she sings with security and intensity from top to bottom. The high notes are, for the most part, loud and exciting, and the chest voice, which she has no qualms about dipping into, is commanding and provides a nice contrast to the rest of the voice. You can tell that she has some burgeoning ideas about the character, but she is shoehorned into unenthusiastically doing the motions of Bondy’s production (In the now-famous moment in which Tosca pierces the painting that Cavaradossi has done of the Madonna, Monastyrska didn’t tear the canvas in half, but instead poked the Madonna square in the nose and gave her an extra nostril.).

Roberto Aronica shined as Cavaradossi. He may not exude stage presence, but his voice has a warm ping to it and his Italianate phrasing fit the bill for this character. Though both of his arias finished stronger than they started, his was still a successful performance that left me wondering 1) where he has been all this time and 2) when we will next hear him in a role like Cavaradossi?

Tosca

Marco Vratogna brought a covered, throaty voice to the part of the police chief Scarpia. He opted not to exploit the interesting dynamic created by his and Monastyrska’s appearing close in age (Often, Scarpia is portrayed as an older predator preying on a younger, more defenseless Tosca.) Vratogna’s career is primarily made up of Italian baritone villains (Scarpia, Iago, Jack Rance, so he more or less has the shtick down. Similarly to Monastyrska, though, his interpretation was confined by Bondy’s production.

John Del Carlo delivered his dependable comic timing as the Sacristan and the Met Orchestra and Chorus were both in top form.

A new production of Tosca by Sir David McVicar is rumored to open on New Year’s Eve in 2017. Maybe a new beginning is exactly what Tosca at the Met needs.

Photos courtesy of Ken Howard and Marty Sohl, respectively

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Bloodlust: A New Production of “Lulu” at the Met

My review of the Met’s latest production of Lulu is live on the Huffington Post! Find it here.

  
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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The Royal Treatment: Elektra with the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall

In a galvanizing, hair-raising performance, the Boston Symphony Orchestra arrived at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night a hundred strong and with a vengeance that could only be befitting of one character and the opera that was named for her: Richard StraussElektra.

Goerke, Nelsons, Barkmin- Photo courtesy of Chris Lee

The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the first one of his many successful collaborations with Strauss, is an adaptation of Sophocles’s play of the same name. To avenge the sacrifice of her daughter Iphegenia, the queen Klytamnestra has murdered her husband, the king Agamemnon, with the help of her lover Aegisth. Klytamnestra has three other children from her marriage to Agamemnon: Elektra, who is fiercely loyal to her father’s memory and vehemently hates her mother, Chrysothemis, who longs for peace and domesticity and has remained in the good graces of Klytamnestra and Aegisth, and Orest, a son despised by Klytamnestra and allied with Elektra who is believed to have been dead. The opera is set in the courtyard of the palace in Mycenae where Elektra lives, having rejected her life as a princess. The series of interactions between Elektra has her brother, sister, and mother, that make up the opera all lead up to the opera’s thrilling climax: Elektra’s manic dance of joy and death once Orest has slain their mother.

Goerke- Photo courtesy of Chris Lee

A cornerstone of the dramatic soprano repertoire, Elektra is famously demanding. It utilizes the singer’s entire range from piercing high notes to commanding low notes and Elektra is onstage singing nearly the whole night. There are very few people who can do justice to the role, but fortunately we live in the age of Christine Goerke. Bringing the role with which she re-exploded onto the scene as a dramatic soprano in 2012 to New York for the first time, Goerke has made Elektra her calling card and she inhabits the part entirely. In a production performed in concert, Goerke was given a chance to interpret the part without a director’s influence, and the nuances she brings to this deeply angered woman make her both more human and more terrifying. This was an Elektra who was tender at one moment and furious at the next. Goal oriented but self-conscious. Alternately skulking and striding across Cagengie Hall’s stage in a striking crimson gown, her stage-animal instincts blended perfectly with the feral Elektra. Goerke’s voice rose to match her characterization on every level. It easily filled the hall with her powerful, glinting soprano and idiomatic interpretation of Hofmannsthal’s text. She had no trouble transitioning between registers, and only at the end of Elektra’s lengthy first aria did she seem to lose some steam. Otherwise, Goerke was completely in control of the performance and will surely be seen as the definitive Elektra for this generation. And deservedly so.

As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin lent her beautiful yet powerful voice to the part of Elektra’s long-suffering sister. Her singing was sensitive when she dreamed of motherhood and powerful when she rose to match Goerke at the end of their scene. Barkmin’s aesthetic exudes old Hollywood and she was equally expressive onstage as Goerke, glamorously decked out in a fur coat and ropes of pearls. She was every inch a princess nearing the end of her resources.

Klytamnestra is a role many singers grow into. It’s a rich character role with fifteen minutes of thrilling music. Jane Henschel, while not emerging as many Klytamnestras do in stage productions with an entourage and weighed down with jewelry and amulets, gave an incisive dignity to the tortured queen and alternated pin-pointedly accurate singing with penetrating sprechstimme, a German speak-singing technique that’s rarely done or done well these days. Growing progressively more sinister in her confrontation with Elektra, this haughty Klytamnestra gave substance to the underlying tension between Elektra and her mother. As any good scene partner should do, Henschel’s Klytamnestra validated Goerke’s Elektra.

Elektra Premiere

Cartoonist unknown- Taken from Philip G. Goulding’s “Ticket to the Opera”

The men were uniformly good as well, though this night belonged to the women. Gerhard Siegel brought a pinging Straussian tenor to the part of Aegsith, and James Rutherford brought an expressive and soft-grained baritone to the part of Orest, though a part like Orest could benefit from a certain grittiness that Rutherford lacked. Rebecca Nash voice was pretty and powerful as the fifth maid, and Nadine Secunda was a distinguished overseer of the maids.

Part of what makes Elektra such an intense piece is the orchestra. Strauss scored over 100 instruments in the opera, and the musicians of the BSO filled the entire stage. But all of this would have been for naught had it not been for Andris Nelsons, the maestro who held it all together. This was a company that moved as one the entire night, which is a credit to Nelsons. He revealed every nuance in Strauss’ complex score and never skimped on the loud, bombastic moments that make Elektra the exciting piece of music-drama that it is. The piece seemed like second nature to the musicians who delivered an unequivocally immersive performance.

Unfortunately, nights as fulfilling as this are the exception and not the norm in New York City. It will be interesting to see what Nina Stemme brings to the part at the Met in the spring. But Carnegie Hall’s Elektra represented a return to the much belabored “golden age” of opera: no-holds-barred singing, a churning orchestral accompaniment, and an audience that loved every minute of it.

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Summer Lovin’: Written on Skin at the Mostly Mozart Festival

My review of the Mostly Mozart Festival’s production of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin is now available on the Huffington Post. Check it out and let me know your thoughts! 

  
Photo by Richard Termine

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