Leave a comment

Spread Your Wings and Fly: Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera

Whether or not it was because of Giacomo Puccini’s tuneful and heart-wrenching score, New York Fashion Week, or the first outing of soprano Ana Maria Martínez, a singer curiously absent from the Met, in a prima donna role, the Metropolitan Opera was jam-packed for the premiere of Madama Butterfly on Friday, February 19th.

Madama Butterfly

Zifchak and Martinez

Most opera fans are familiar with Puccini’s drama about a Japanese geisha who is disappointed and humiliated when Pinkerton, the U.S. Naval officer she married and believed to be faithful, returns from a three-year absence with a new wife to retrieve the child Pinkerton and Butterfly had together. Stripped of her honor, Butterfly then kills herself with a ceremonial dagger. Replete with “Asian” motifs and intense demands from the singers and orchestra, Butterfly is especially difficult to execute for such a core work of the standard repertoire. This run of performances at the Met (13 in total) was originally supposed to feature Patricia Racette and Kristine Opolais as Butterfly, but because of a series of repertoire changes and illnesses, Racette’s performances bounced from her to Hei Kyung Hong (who steps into the kimono starting February 27th) to Ana Maria Martínez for only two performances.

Martínez possesses an ample, amber-colored voice with a resonant, grainy middle, and she uses it with intelligence and security. However, her high notes have the tendency to fade away, and on Friday, she just couldn’t get to the musical climaxes, the high notes, at the heart of all of Butterfly’s arias, even despite smart and sensitive phrasing choices throughout. It’s not that the high notes aren’t there, but that there is little force behind the upper register compared to the thrust in the rest of the voice. Other high notes, though, defied this tendency and were spun into dazzling pianissimi. Martínez’s Butterfly was refreshingly reserved at the beginning of the opera, and slowly descended into desperation throughout. She wasn’t naïve, but an inevitable victim of a society that objectifies women. And by the end, when Butterfly is faced with dishonor and suicide is the only option, it still feels like a conscious choice. Martínez is light on her feet and hard to take your eyes off of. She played well with the other singers and was able to easily and gracefully negotiate the raked stage in the gorgeous but obviously-cumbersome kimono she wears for much of the opera. Butterfly, though well-executed by her in almost every category, just might not be the perfect fit for her voice.

As Pinkerton, Roberto De Biasio hammed it up as a playful playboy and was more or less unmemorable. The voice is slender and a size or two too small for the Met, and he struggled to distinguish himself in any of the ensembles. Both his arias were muscled through, and though not for lack of trying, he seemed mismatched with Martínez’s much more assured Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly

Martinez and Rucinski

Artur Rucinski, a baritone with a serviceable voice who made his Met debut on Friday, gave a performance that suffered from both a lack of line and garbled diction as Sharpless, the American Consul. Maria Zifchak, a stalwart Suzuki, may be showing signs of a wobble, but she is still one of the few Met artists that consistently delivers with a gleaming voice and warm stage presence.

Karel Mark Chicon, also in his Met debut, conducted with uniformly brisk tempi, and though he was able to emphasize the drama in Puccini’s inherently dramatic score, the singers and chorus seemed frequently stranded and searching as the opera relentlessly surged on.

Anthony Minghella’s production, now ten years old, is still an intelligent staging that gives the music every opportunity to shine. It’s also singer-friendly – there is room for singers to put their mark on the characters. Michael Levine’s sets are spare and evocative, Han Feng’s costumes are detailed and striking, and Peter Mumford’s lighting is just phenomenal. Blind Summit Theatre provides the puppets, one of which stands in for Butterfly’s son, Trouble. After ten years, audiences seem to be finally acclimated to this initially arresting but ultimately effective innovation.

Madama Butterfly

Martinez and De Biasio

Martínez performs the title role one more time on Monday, and then Hei Kyung Hong, singing Butterfly for the first time in her long career, takes over the part until March 5th. Kristine Opolais steps in for the remaining performances and the run ends April 12th. Other singers to join the cast are Gwyn Hughes Jones and Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. Tickets available here.

Photos by Marty Sohl

2 Comments

War of the Roses: Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera

The triptych of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor Queens is a famously challenging cycle for any diva. Most notably sung by Beverly Sills at New York City Opera, the three queens at the centerpieces of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn), Maria Stuarda (Queen Elizabeth OR Mary Stuart, depending on what angle you come from), and Roberto Devereux (Elizabeth, again) are notorious for their vocal and dramatic demands. Earlier in the season, Sondra Randvanovsky tackled Anna Bolena, a role as notable for its length as its need for a wide tessitura and rolodex of vocal techniques. While opinions of Radvanovsky’s performance were mixed, I found that the plusses (dramatic conviction, stellar high notes, thrilling vocal climaxes like only she can do these days, and a no-holds-barred vocal approach to the role) far outweighed the minuses (a lack of thrust in her lower register and some weakness in her agility singing). On Friday, Radvanovsky made another step towards completing the cycle as Maria Stuarda, the deposed Scottish queen at odds with her cousin Queen Elizabeth. Stuarda is somewhat of a different beast than Bolena (Stuarda lacks the need for a lower extension that Bolena has and is a seemingly shorter sing, though Stuarda also requires moments of virtuosity independent from the more consistently-taught drama in Bolena), but Radvanovsky latched onto the part with her brand of secure singing and triumphed once again.

MS_1049a

Celso Albelo, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Elza Van den Heever in Maria Stuarda

The opera comes from the Friedrich Schiller play of the same name. While Schiller’s adaptation draws from history, the centerpiece of the play-cum-opera is a heated confrontation between the two monarchs that actually never happened in history. The result, though, is a thrilling musical and dramatic moment that enlivens an opera that is often frustratingly formulaic and indecisive in scope. This is somewhat alleviated by David McVicar’s minimalistic, stylish production (which he also oversaw this revival of). McVicar hones in on each character beyond the characterizations of Giuseppe Bardari’s libretto, and what emerges is a clear depiction of two strong women: Mary, who is confident in her Catholic convictions and direct in her interactions with others, and Elizabeth, who has been crippled by her inability to form connections with her subjects and lurches about the stage like she has a nasty chafe. The opera itself looks sympathetically at Maria, but McVicar reminds the viewer that these women are flawed, and it’s OK not not warm to either of them.

In the title role, Radvanovsky was pushed to incorporate all of her vocal tricks into a shorter evening of singing. Pianissimi were often and well spun, high notes (the optional high note Radvanovsky took when Maria brands Elisabetta an “obscene and unworthy whore” was particularly thrilling) rang out, and, with the exception of a lacking trill at the end of “O Nube” and some lagging in agility as she negotiated the ensemble following the Confrontation, the vocal climaxes she built to were electrifying. The show revolved around Radvanovsky and her warm stage presence made her final climb up the executioner’s scaffold an unexpectedly poignant moment, despite the churning, relentless orchestral accompaniment playing the theme from Maria’s cabaletta, “Nella Pace del Mesto Riposo,” that was lead with balance and style by Maestro Riccardo Frizza.

MS_1659a

Elza van Den Heever returned to the role of Elisabetta after singing the part opposite Joyce DiDonato’s poetic Maria when the production premiered in 2013 (And if, like me, most of your experience with the opera comes from hearing DiDonato, a mezzo, do the part, then hearing the same music sung by a soprano is a very different experience.). Her voice may be more grainy that beautiful, but it has dramatic heft and she sang with security throughout the evening. And though the sound can be grating after a while and the voice just cannot muster up the charisma to meet Radvanovsky in the numerous vocal climaxes that make this opera satisfying, the two Queen’s voices blended perfectly. Neither sound is particularly beautiful, but they voices complemented each other in that there were moments where they sounded similar. The conflict at the heart of Maria Stuarda is that Maria and Elisabetta are cousins and there is a huge discrepancy in power between them. All of a sudden, the members of this family were singing the same tune.

This opera is all about the ladies, and the men in it need no more than to be good ensemble singers or duet partners, which they all were. Celso Albelo, in his Met debut as Leicester, possesses a sweet and idiomatic voice, but no singer is served well next to two powerhouse divas hurling insults at each other. Patrick Carfizzi was in good voice, his rich bass-baritone amply filling William Cecil’s lines. Kwangchul Youn as Talbot brought sensitive singing to the Confession duet with Maria, accompanying her with diligence and fluidity. In the small role of Anna Kennedy, one of Maria’s servants, Maria Zifchak exuded her usual warm stage presence but wielded an increasingly thinning voice.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus were in their usual top form. The “Preghiera” in the third act, where Radvanovsky’s voice rose above the chorus and bloomed into the house, was one of the most cohesive and moving moments of music-making I have witnessed at the Met. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is evocative, spanning from the levity of the initial festivities at Whitehall to the grim scaffold that Maria ultimately mounts. John Macfarlane’s consumes are dark and nondescript, but his sets do everything to complement Donizetti’s sometimes-evocative music and set the mood (which is, usually, super gloomy).

Heads roll at the Met through February 20th, and Radvanovsky dons the ruff in Roberto Devereux starting on March 24th. With the precedent set by her performances in the previous two operas, it should be a jolly good time.

MS_3233a
Photos by Ken Howard

Leave a comment

To Rome With Love: Tosca at New York City Opera Renaissance

One can only hope that New York City Opera Renaissance, headed by impresario Michael Capasso, will go the direction of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in that it gains vitality and innovation as the years go on, because, despite the initial curiosity of recreating the same production that was seen at the opera’s premiere in 1900, the Tosca that arrived at the Rose Theater this week seemed an odd successor to a company that prided itself on artistic innovation on every level.

NYCOR Tosca 4

Photo by Sarah Shatz

Tosca was a symbolic choice more than anything. It was the first opera that the original NYCO performed. In this incarnation, though, NYCO Renaissance obtained the rights to all of Adolfo Hohenstein’s set and costume designs from the the publisher Ricordi and painstakingly recreated the production that was, more or less, seen when the curtain first went up on Tosca at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1900. The painted drops are impressive. Hohenstein’s watercolor designs are well-lit (by Susan Roth) and thoroughly drawn to create an effect that is both pleasing to the eye and effective in creating a false perspective. Lev Pugliese’s direction of the singers was efficient and predictably traditional, if not overdrawn at times (Cavaradossi drew a knife when Angelotti emerged from the chapel in Act I). Though the drops flapped and fluttered every time somebody brushed past them too quickly and sometimes one could almost smell the mothballs bogging down this vintage take on a uniquely layered opera, it was an interesting concept for a production. But I cannot believe that this is the message that New York City Opera Renaissance wants to send. A production like this, though valuable for its historical quaintness, seems just plain regressive to a medium that is constantly making leaps and bounds forward and to a company that will succeed because of the goodwill of the risk-taking patrons of the original New York City Opera. Let’s just say that the Winter Show at the Armory wasn’t the only antique show that arrived in New York City last week, though I would bet that the crowd at each event was the same.

NYCO Renaissance presented two alternating trios of singers in the lead roles. The opening night cast was headed by Kristin Sampson as the diva Tosca. While not particularly distinctive, her voice, with its wide middle, pinched top, and a nice but underutilized chest voice, worked for the part. Her performance improved as the opera progressed, despite an unadorned “Vissi d’Arte,” and a rather timid characterization that made it hard to draw a connection between a Tosca who commands the stage as a singer and commands a relationship as a significant other. The quote “well-behaved women rarely make history” came to mind as this Tosca gingerly moved through the act of and stage business following Scarpia’s murder.

NYCOR Tosca 3

Latonia Moore and Carlo Guelfi – Photo by Sarah Shatz

The second Tosca was the radiant Latonia Moore. Her voice is big, beautiful, and evenly produced from top to bottom with a strong and consistent vocal line, and she commanded the stage from the moment she stepped on the scene. This was a Tosca that was in control, as serious about her craft as she was about her romances. It was wrenching to watch her as she became increasingly more frantic during her lover’s torture in Act II, desperate to stay in control in some way. Moore has a palpably deep feeling for Puccini’s music, too. She made each one of Tosca’s anguished Act II high notes a sob, a sigh, or a scream. Whereas some singers just wail, Moore allowed each one of Puccini’s high notes to reveal something about the character. I can’t help but think that Puccini, a man of the theatre himself, would have been impressed.

The first cast’s Cavaradossi was James Valenti, whose old-school, self-indulgent stage movements (outstretched hands, lines delivered to the house as opposed to other characters, etc.) jived with the overall “theme” of the production. His Italianate, resonant voice consistently filled the theater (though his voice was far more interesting and expressive when he played with dynamics) and every high note was nailed (and held for a really long time). Valenti’s is a dominating presence onstage, so genuine chemistry between he and his prima donna was hard to come by. Each aria, though, ended stronger than or as strong as it started.

The other Cavaradossi, Raffaele Abete, was quite Valenti’s opposite. His voice is more slender and exacting than Valenti’s robust one, but it rose to nearly every climax. While he seemed musically tentative during parts on the first act and the second act saw him run out of steam a bit, he was in good shape for the tenor arias that bookend the opera. Abete and Moore had much better chemistry than the previous pairing.

NYCOR Tosca 2

James Valenti and Kristin Sampson in Tosca – Photo by Sarah Shatz

Michael Chioldi stole the show as the Scarpia of the first cast. His voice, a rich and resonant baritone, stood out amongst his co-stars as he dispatched the text with precision and ease. Also, his Scarpia, more of a glutton for pain and pleasure as opposed to the usual straight-up lecher, was a welcome respite from the slimy, distant Scarpia of Luc Bondy’s production that played in revival earlier this season several blocks down at the Met.

The second Scarpia was veteran baritone Carlo Guelfi. Guelfi’s voice has deteriorated over the years to the point where it has become an acidic, legato-less snarl, punctuated by an occasional declamative booming. He moved onstage with purpose, though, and his obvious experience onstage made him a welcome commodity in a production whose concept is so vintage that it was practically foreign to the rest of the singers.

The smaller roles were filled-in competently. Christopher Job was a lustrous-voiced Angelotti and Blagoj Nacoski’s Spoletta was well-sung and had all the necessary sliminess one expects from this pivotal minor character. Kevin Thompson’s booming-yet-sensitive bass was a standout as the jailer. Donald Hartmann brought a worn voice to the over-directed, relentless comic routine of the Sacristan. In her solo as the Shepherd Boy, Daria Hrabova Capasso gave an admirable performance.

22RENAISSANCE1-master675

Photo by Richard Termine

Pacien Mazzagattis conducting lacked subtlety, but drew interesting textures and fiery playing from the New York City Opera Orchestra (Yes, the original NYCO Orchestra). Musica Sacra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus were both distinguished contributors to the first act.

New York City Opera Renaissance has a difficult act to follow and a new generation of donors to win over. I personally hope that it is high-quality music-making and boundary-pushing theatrics that bring audiences to NYCOR in the future. But whether or not this new generation of fans and donors will be wooed by a Puccini warhorse staged in a watercolor music box is probably a question better left both unasked and unanswered.

Hohenstein Tosca

Original Set Design for Act II of Tosca by Adolfo Hohenstein

1 Comment

Languages of Love and Loss: Bel Canto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For whatever reason, humankind has an obsession with being trapped in close quarters and the bonds that emerge as a result. An opera based on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a film about a group of dinner guests who find themselves inexplicably trapped in a salon, is set to premiere in Salzburg this summer. In 2008, Guerilla Opera presented No Exit, an opera about three people trapped in a room, set to a libretto by Jean-Paul Sartre. We just can’t get enough claustrophobia, and that tendency was seen in the enthusiastic audience that packed into the Civic Opera House to take in the penultimate performance of Bel Canto, a Lyric Opera commission that opened in December 2015.

Bel Canto 1Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto was inspired by the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis during which 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to Peru during a party and took the affluent guests hostage. Over the course of 126 days, hostages were gradually released until Peruvian soldiers stormed the residence and executed all of the insurgents on April 22, 1997. The opera iteration of the piece, which clings closer to the actual historical events than the novel and details the interactions between hostages and hostage-takers, was commissioned by Lyric Opera in 2010 and spearheaded by none other than Lyric Creative Consultant Renée Fleming. Fleming personally oversaw the selection of a composer, librettist, and aspects of the production.

Bel Canto represents a true coming together on Lyric’s behalf. The company assembled the creative, production, and performance team to create an opera that not only feels truly unique, but also inspiring in its diversity. Nearly everybody onstage gets an opportunity to sing and the same can be said for instruments in the pit. This piece is democratic.

According to Lyric promotional materials, composer Jimmy López worked closely with Lyric musical staff to perfect writing an opera as opposed to chamber music, but such strain never shows in the cohesive piece put on-stage. The music builds to frequent climaxes and is often chillingly atmospheric, but it never forsakes the drama for the sake of a sublime musical moment. López has a good handle on writing for the voice, as evidenced by the ranging vocal registers and singers onstage, and orchestral writing ranges from plush to pulsing – What better textures for an opera about hostages kidnapped in an embassy?

Danielle-de-Niese-as-Roxane-Coss-in-Bel-Canto-Lyric-Opera-ChicagoThe words were left to Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, and they were left in good hands. The opera is sung alternatingly in eight different languages, among them English, Russian, Japanese, French, Quechua (a native Peruvian language), and Spanish. Not only is the juggling of the languages impressive (the piece never settles on one language – it is all specific to the background of the character and underscores the theme of communication difficulties throughout the piece), but the words are, too, as Cruz makes pleasant poetry at almost every turn. Ensembles in particular are something to behold. Singers sing alternating melodies and languages and the overlap is exquisite. There are definitely parts of the opera that could be tightened up, but López and Cruz are a highly effective pair and the result is a fulfilling night at the opera.

The singing is equally strong. This piece has obviously been the result of significant rehearsal and prep time, and it shows. The entire ensemble – singers, orchestra, and staging – moves like clockwork. In the prima donna role of Roxane Coss, Danielle de Niese treads the role’s unerringly high tessitura with diligence, but she’s a committed actress to boot. Even at the end of the 3-hour evening during which she has quite a lot of singing to do, she failed to waiver and commanded the stage.

Bel-Canto-by-Jimmy-Lpez-and-Nilo-Cruz-Lyric-Opera-ChicagoAndrew Stenson sang the role of Gen Watanabe, the translator for Katsumi Hosokowa, the raison d’être for the party at the mansion, with a refreshing clearness and sincerity. As Hosokowa himself, Jeongcheol Cha’s sympathetic, lyrical, and resonant bass was a pleasure to hear in his especially committed portrayal. The true scene stealer of the night, though, was J’Nai Bridges, a former Ryan Opera Center member with a beautiful and expressive mezzo that is strong and resonant from the bottom to the top. Her prayer to Saint Rose of Lima was a highlight, if not the highlight, of the entire evening. Rafael Davila’s performance as General Alfredo improved as the night went on, and Jacques Imbrailo was an even-voiced and leveling factor as Joachim Messner, the Red Cross liaison. In the role of César, one of the insurgents with a penchant for music, Anthony Roth Costanzo showed off his no-joke musical instincts and a voice that has only grown more interesting over the years. The smaller parts were all well-served, with standouts William Burden as Rúben Iglesias, Takaoki Onishi as Father Arguedas, and Annie Rosen and Anthony Clark Evans as Edith and Simon Thibault. Bradley Smoak shone as General Benjamín.

Sir Andrew Davis lead an incisive and and coordinated reading of the score which was clearly well-absorbed by the talented members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. The Lyric Opera Chorus was not only musically solid, but one of the most dramatically involved ensembles I’ve seen in an opera house.

09BELCANTOJP-articleLargeKevin Newbury’s production is huge, ornate, and involved. The singers move easily within the relatively small confines of David Korins’ spectacular (and massive) set, and the opera offers plenty of moments for directorial nuances that were all capitalized on. The most impressive parts of the staging, though, were the projections by Greg Emetaz, who alternatingly brought the audience to the Scala or to the jungle. So much work is done with projections in opera these days, and it seldom goes for anything. In Bel Canto, though, it certainly measures up. Constance Hoffman’s costumes were colorful and intricate (and indicated a surplus of pantsuits in 1990’s Peru). Duane Schuler’s lighting succeeded in creating that feeling of claustrophobia and isolation.

Bel Canto should have a promising future – The opera is truly solid and there are plenty of roles, opportunities for instrumentalists, and possibilities for a stage director. New opera is what moves the medium forward, and a future that welcomes Bel Canto is a bright future, indeed.

All Photos by Todd Rosenberg

Leave a comment

December Divas: Leontyne Price’s “Christmas with Leontyne Price”

Leontyne Price Christmas

Label: Decca

Merry Christmas, opera fans! I hope that you are all enjoying the holiday and finding plenty of opera in your stockings this year. For this final installment of “December Divas,” I wanted to highlight what I (and many other opera connoisseurs out there) believe is the finest Christmas album yet produced by an opera singer: “Christmas with Leontyne Price.”

Soprano Leontyne Price took the project at the behest of the dynamic maestro Herbert von Karjan and the album was recorded in 1961.

The album benefits from Price’s being in excellent voice, sensitive conducting from von Karjan, beautiful playing by members of the Vienna Philharmonic, and spare arrangements. The approach to the entire album is one of restraint and respect for the material, and that really shines. The collaborative spirit between Price and Karjan is palpable. Price’s evenly-produced, soaring sound and clear, unaffected diction perfectly complement the evocative conducting of Maestro von Karjan.

These are all traditional Christmas carols, with the addition of the lovely spiritual “Sweet L’il Jesus.” Curiously absent from all of the other “December Divas” albums, “We Three Kings” is given a crisp, flowing reading. The Vienna Philharmonic turns into a small Baroque band for a festive “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “O Holy Night” is pleasantly un-dirgelike, Mozart’s “Alleluja” is simply charming, and Price’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is simply perfection. In “Von Himmel Hoch,” Price digs into the material a bit more, channeling the dramatic stage performer within herself, and the results are infinitely satisfying.

The Vienna Philharmonic, the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and the Wiener Grosstadtkinderchor are all given their time to shine, and the album never ever feels like anybody is competing for dominance. The instrumental prelude preceding Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is especially charming. The choruses often pipe in (as does the organ), but it’s never intrusive.

In short, the entire album is extremely tastefully done. Price and von Karjan make an excellent match and they fully know it. This album is an absolute delight and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

What are “December Divas”? See parts 1,2,3,4,5, and 6.

Leave a comment

December Divas: Renata Tebaldi’s “A Christmas Festival”

Renata Tebaldi ChristmasLabel: Decca

I dragged my heels when it came to writing about Renata Tebaldi’s “A Christmas Festival.” I first bought the album last year, popped it in while I was getting some work done, and quickly dismissed it. I thought it was slow, boring, poorly-curated, and featured Tebaldi in bad voice. At the behest of my friend “Mirto Picchi” (who has been instrumental in helping me organize which albums I’d cover as part of “December Divas” and how), though, I begrudgingly put the album back on this year. And my perception completely changed.

The album was first recorded in 1971, well-past Tebaldi’s prime years of singing. The voice had lost much of its glowing, beautiful sound, and her higher register was strained considerably. But these vocal concerns all take a back seat in this album. This album showcases all of Tebaldi’s strengths. It’s a masterclass in phrasing, building to a climax, and telling a story with music, a capstone to a long and distinguished singing career.

The album is subdued. Orchestrations (Played and conducted with great diligence and purpose by Anton Guadagno and the New Philharmonia Orchestra) are majestic and restrained and the Ambrosian Singers are used sparingly in pieces with choral accompaniment. The songs are either of a religious nature or classic carols, an all are sung lovingly. Among the highlights are “Silent Night,” sung so touchingly in Italian, Spanish, French, and English that it serves as a reminder that the Christmas spirit can stretch across countries, social classes, and language barriers with equal potency, a lilting performance of Brahms’ “Wiegenlied,” and the best version of “O Holy Night,” one that really communicates the arc of the story in conjunction with the soaring vocal passages, that I have heard in all my “December Divas” listening. Her reading of Gounod’s “O Divine Redeemer” yields similarly moving results with some interesting chest voice. If the familiar “Ave Maria” is indistinctive on this album, then “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle,” a traditional Italian holiday song, is especially satisfying for the way that Tebaldi’s voice “fills” the piece like water fills a glass. The rest of the songs continue to play on Tebaldi’s strengths while letting her vocal gifts speak for themselves. It’s a massively satisfying listen and a deeply moving seasonal document of a rich career. Seek out this album for Christmas Eve listening. I simply can’t imagine anything better to listen to while relaxing by a fire.

What are “December Divas”? See parts 1,2,3,4, and 5.

Leave a comment

December Divas: Marilyn Horne’s “O Holy Night”

Marilyn Horne Christmas

Label: Sony

Marilyn Horne was perhaps born in the wrong era. She helped move Baroque opera back into the public conscious and came to be associated with it, but the Baroque interpretation of the Horne era is much different from our interpretation now. “Historically informed” renditions of Baroque operas, like the ones we see today, are streamlined. Orchestras play sparingly and singing favors pinpoint accuracy and modest ornamentation. In this way, it’s almost unfair to listen to a singer of a bygone era and critique her by modern standards. Bombast was just what they did things back then, and Marilyn Horne’s Christmas album, “O Holy Night,” performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, has bombast in spades.

The album is almost entirely traditional Christmas carols and classics, some wisely performed in their original languages (Horne is infinitely more idiomatic in the non-English tracks on this album). Recorded in 1983, the album features Horne in powerful voice, but the acidic twinges that end phrases, which were absent in earlier recordings, somewhat mar her characteristically round voice. The album has clear high points and low points. High points include a lively and charming “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella,” a well-delivered “Gesu Bambino,” and a performance of “The Bethlehem Babe” which extols Horne’s strong gifts as a musical storyteller. “Stille Nacht” is also a highlight, with its simple and deliberate delivery. On the flip side, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sees Horne almost drowned out by the bombastic Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jerrold Ottley, in their over-scored and overly-dynamic arrangements, as well as an “O Holy Night” that features heavily the aforementioned acidic releases and relentless vibrato. “White Christmas” lacks any Bing Crosby-esque charm and sees a bizarre first verse tacked on to it. The major problem with this recording, though, is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a hugely talented and respected group, but they are just too present on this album. They figure into every single song, come in and out too often, and Horne is left to compete with (or be washed over by) them. In fact, the last several tracks of the album are exclusively the MTC. Surely there are enough MTC Christmas albums in the world that they don’t need to overdo it on Marilyn Horne’s. The consistent presence of the MTC, coupled with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, renders the recording heavy-handed to a modern listener. It’s the musical equivalent of finishing off an entire pint of eggnog in one night. Christmassy, yes, but at what cost? You’ll be sick of it before too long.

What are December Divas? See parts 1,2,3, and 4.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,310 other followers