Friday, February 27, 2009

What does music mean to you?

Open another tab and read this welcoming speech by Dr. Karl Paulnack to the Freshman class at the Boston Conservatory, then ponder on the question a bit.

I've at times been accused of being too willing to defend singers who don't sound perfectly beautiful when they sing. I plead guilty... It's the humanely imperfect singers whose willingness to share their most vulnerable thoughts in their vocal portrayal of songs who communicate to me more than beautiful singing machines ever do. There is a strange sense of companionship that gets established when someone's music making can make you believe that whatever set back you've had in your life is something s/he has experienced, too.

Photo is a screen shot from Vesselina Kasarova's 2004 concert on the Prinzengracht Canal in Amsterdam. Charles Spencer accompanied her on the piano.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Early morning by the San Diego Bay

Who needs security guards when we have watchful sea gulls looking over the marina?
This is downtown's Embarcadero Marina Park - North...

don't know what the tree is (I'm not a native Californian),

but I sure love looking at it!
** 10 May 2009: I finally found out what sort of tree this is. It's Erythrina caffra (coral tree).

A bunch of navy boats were out making waves. The yellow and orange boat to the right is our harbor pilot... He guides visiting ships in and out of the bay.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Alpine in My Mind...

'September' is usually performed along with 3 other songs the German composer Richard Strauss wrote toward the end of his life in 1948. The (posthumous) grouping is known to us lovers of classical singing as 'Vier letzte Lieder' (Four Last Songs); Frühling (Spring), September, Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep), and Im Abendrot (Evening).

I'm not a singer, so I'm allowed to love Strauss' music more (this thing is a bear to sing!). He had a magical way of setting a musical scene in a very cinematographic manner using his large orchestra. There are layers and layers of melodic textures that let you hear and see both the details and the big picture at the same time. A whole lot of instruments are playing, but none so loudly - enabling the musical portrait to be richly textured without becoming dense (a la Wagner).
'September' is set in D major. Listen to how the various strings and woodwinds create the pulsing resonance that puts you right in a Bavarian alpine garden on a misty day at the border of summer and fall. We zoom in on the crest of the violins, over the deep blue lake as the fluttering piccolo accentuates the waving field of flowers and its butterflies - swaying their delight in the coming surge of cool air. It is raining ever so gently (in waves of strummed harps) though the sun isn't yet totally absent (do you hear its ray breaking through the clouds with those two trumpets?). The instrumental colors swirl into an acoustic wave from which the soaring soprano voice launches itself...

"Der Garten trauert,........................ The garden mourns,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen... as cold rain sinks into its flowers.
Der Sommer schauert...................... Summer shudders,
still seinem Ende entgegen................ quietly awaiting its ending.
Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt............... Golden leaves fall; one by one
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.......... from the tall acacia tree
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt...... Smiles summer, feeble and stunned
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.......... at its fading garden dream.
Lange noch bei den Rosen............... For a while yet it tarries by the roses
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.... as it is drawn to its repose.
Langsam tut er................................ Slowly it closes
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.............. its weary eyes."

- (Hermann Hesse)
Have you ever sung a more descriptive lullaby to summer? So effortlessly persuade its retirement (listen to that sigh it lets out along with its 'feeble smile'!)? Putting it gently to sleep at the soothing tones of the French horns while fading into the peaceful shade of metabolism-slowing gray of the new season? ... And what sweet repose has summer gone off to but to bless Morpheus with its shining acoustic memory of the passing garden. That Richard Strauss was a genius when it comes to orchestration!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Be-mused by the muse

Having been born too late to have the chance to experience the likes of Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Lotte Lehmann, Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, and even Marilyn Horne live on the stage has many sucky aspects to it. But I can't complain too much.... After all, I live in the time of Vesselina Kasarova, a stage chameleon of operatic proportion if there ever is one.

This is she, in three different operas: Offenbach's La belle Helene, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. The clip is a bit out of sync, I'm afraid. The uploading process seems to have caused the audio to lag behind a little. But, anyhow, if I hadn't told you, would you have realized that it is the same woman in each of these different roles?

Hide outs

I may not blend in so well into my surroundings like that cool cat at William Heath Davis' House in the Gaslamp Quarter does. But there are many more places to snug in and no-people watch from peacefully at my favorite corner of Balboa Park.... Zoro Garden.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Operatic musing: Vitellia, Mozart's Petulently Fascinating Spoiled Princess

A friend of mine got me thinking about Vitellia in Mozart's opera, La clemenza di Tito (the Clemency of Titus), this morning. This is truly one of the most morally repulsive operatic characters around... I'd think that she is topped only by Elettra/Elektra, Salome, and perhaps Katarina Izmailova in terms of unabated nastiness (at least Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco and Puccini's Turandot do have a real change of heart at the end).

The story of La clemenza di Tito concerns the Roman emperor Tito (Titus Vespasianus)'s relentless display of clemency even when betrayed by his childhood best friend, Sesto (Sextus), who is coerced by Vitellia (the daughter of the late emperor Vitellius) into leading a conspiracy to assassinate Tito. The opera was commissioned for the coronation of Leopold II of Bohemia, and so Mozart's hands were tied when it comes to how Tito would be portrayed (he is practically the stand-in for Leopold, and so must come out spotlessly merciful at all cost). To compensate, old Wolfie bestowed upon Sesto and Vitellia some of the most beautiful and dramatically fascinating music he had ever penned.

On the music score, Vitellia is a downright hideous role... She has to be either a lirico-spinto soprano with really great low notes, or a true mezzo-soprano with really good top (the role covers well over 2 full octaves; peaking with a D6 during the Act I trio, Vengo! Aspettate!, and bottoming out with a G3 toward the end of her final rondo, Non piu di fiori).... and is able to cope with a tessitura (average pitch) that is just about as stable as one would expect from a flea-infested yelp-a-delic chihuahua. Having made the role darn near impossible to sing beautifully, Mozart had practically ensured that she is not a role for a beautiful vocalist, but for a dramatically apt singing actress.

How deliciously mean is Vitellia? Check out her two full arias from a 2003 performance of the opera at the Salzburg Festival... performed by the viciously captivating Dorothea Röschmann (Sesto, played here by Vesselina Kasarova, was written for a soprano castrato and is now usually sung by a mezzo-soprano).

The text goes:
"Deh, se piacer mi vuoi, lascia i sospetti tuoi/ Ah, if you want to please me, don't be so suspicious;
Non mi stancar con questo molesto dubitar./ Don't weary me with tiresome doubts.
Chi ciecamente crede, impegna a serbar fede;/ He who believes doubtlessly inspires faith in others;
Chi sempre inganni aspetta, alletta ad ingannar./ He whose faith wavers invites others' betrayal!"

Listen to how Mozart contrasts the two sections of the aria... The woman is a femme fatale from Hades! She sweet-talks him, knowing that he finds her irresistible... and then taunts him when she sees that he has capitulated to her will. It takes some really great acting both theatrically and vocally to pull this thing off without making the woman so thoroughly repulsive as to make it impossible for the audience to sympathize with how Sesto can be so attracted to such a person (after all, she's ordering him to kill his loyal childhood best bud and emperor!). Vitellia has to be both venomous and yet erotically desirable at the same time.

Alas for the conspirators, Tito, having been turned down by both Berenice (the Jewish princess he was smitten with) and Servilia (Sesto's sister, whom he doesn't really love, but wanted to marry in order to elevate his friend's status at court), decided to ask Vitellia to marry him after all. Frantic, Vitellia tried to rescind her order for Tito's assassination, but was too late. Rome is burned and Sesto, in the confusion of the scene, had stabbed someone resembling Tito, but isn't. Now that order has been restored and his conspirators had given him up, Sesto resolves to confess his part in the plot without revealing Vitellia's hand in it. Realizing that her boyfriend is more loyal to her than she had ever meant to return the favor, Vitellia finds herself in a moral dilemma.

Her second aria, 'Non piu di fiori' (which constitutes the climax of the opera), is actually explained in the recitative that leads into it. The aria itself only amplifies the sense of distress Vitellia is in as described by the recitative, which goes:
"Ecco il punto, o Vitellia, d'esaminar la tua costanza: avrai valor che basti a rimirar esangue il Sesto tuo fedel? Sesto, che t'ama più della vita sua? Che per tua colpa divenne reo? Che t'ubbidì crudele? Che ingiusta t'adorò? Che in faccia a morte sì gran fede ti serba, e tu frattanto non ignota a te stessa, andrai tranquilla al talamo d'Augusto? Ah, mi vedrei sempre Sesto d'intorno; e l'aure, e i sassi temerei che loquaci mi scoprissero a Tito. A' piedi suoi vadasi il tutto a palesar. Si scemi il delitto di Sesto, se scusar non si può, col fallo mio. D'impero e d'imenei, speranze, addio."

(Now is the moment, O Vitellia, to test your constancy: will you have enough courage to see your faithful Sesto dead? Sesto, who loves you more than his own life, who you talked into committing a crime, who obeyed you, cruel one, and adored you, unjust as you are; who in the face of death remains true to you, while you, with all these knowledge, calmly go to Caesar's bridal bed? Ah, I would always be haunted by Sesto and the fear that the breezes and the stones might betray me to Titus. Let me go and confess all at his feet. Let Sesto's crime, If it cannot be forgiven, be lessened through my guilt. Ah farewell, hopes of dominion and marriage!)
So, Vitellia sort of has a conscience after all. Though her 'repentance' is caused by her own fear of future betrayal (perhaps by other conspirators who had eluded captivity) and that the death of Sesto would haunt her conscience.... and not from any love she has for him or because it is the right thing to do. And if there is any trace of remorse about having masterminded a plot to kill a (supposedly) benevolent ruler, I have yet to detect it... This woman is really a piece of work! She is so self-centered through and through that even when she does the right thing, it is still done for a selfish reason.

Though I have to give her credit since she is aware of what Sesto had sacrificed in his love for her (so she isn't quite a sociopath... just supremely spoiled and self-centered). And that she realizes what the mortal consequences of her confession would be and still does it is a plus... There are many people who wouldn't go through with it.

The actual aria:
"Non più di fiori vaghe catene/ No longer shall Hymen descend
Discenda Imene ad intrecciar./ to weave fair garlands of flowers.
Stretta fra barbare aspre ritorte/ Bound in harsh, cruel chains,
Veggo la morte ver me avanzar./ I see death advances on me.
Infelice! qual orrore! Ah, di me che si dirà?/ Wretched me! How horrible! What will be said of me?
Chi vedesse il mio dolore, pur avria di me pietà./ But my distress may move him to mercy."
That's really just her reiterating what she thinks the outcome of her confession would be. Hymen is the Greek god of wedding, so the first phrase says that she knows that her wedding (with Tito) would be called off. The second extrapolates further that she might even be executed for her part in the conspiracy. Then she airs some hope for mercy... though the music indicates that she realizes that mercy isn't a hopeful prospect now even when it concerns Tito.

The more she thinks about it, the more hysterical she gets. The obbligato bassett-horn (that really low tuned woodwind playing its own solo along with the soprano's voice) is her thought of Sesto. It coaxes her to do the right thing even as she becomes more and more horrified with the prospect that Tito's mercy had ran out.... And that is one big reason why I don't like it when some singing geniuses come along and manage to sing this beast of an aria beautifully. Vitellia's soul is anything but beautiful. It's a great big moral struggle for her to perform her first decent act in the entire opera. It has to sound ugly (or at the very least distressful) in parts .... especially when repeating the 'I'm done for, I'm hoping for mercy (but I ain't gonna get it)' motif where her vocal line dips deep into the mezzo-soprano range, going as low as a G3 toward the end of it.

It is such a cool thing that Mozart doesn't pause his music after this tour de force semi-mad-scene, but connects it right to the march to the arena (where Sesto is to become lion food), I think. That makes it easier for the soprano to stay in her quivering distressed mode in the final scene. It is just as well made it easier for Vitellia to confess, too..... She doesn't have much time to re-think it after the hysterical ending of her rondo to when the beaten up Sesto is brought in.

I'm not sure how significant 'Non piu di fiori' is in the overall scheme of the opera, but it is the place where a really good singing actress playing Vitellia can earn her very morally off-putting character some sympathy from the audience. It makes the character more intriguing... There is some hope that the Vitellia at the end of the opera has emerged a chastised and more predisposed to morality than the one at the beginning of the work (it takes quite a b*tch to sing that first aria! This character is manipulative as hell!).

Some hope, but not a lot...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bay bums

I don't know why but I love watching these diving birds as much as they like to hang around the Embarcadero looking at the sunset. They don't sing songs like the St. Louis birds do, but they can screech and spit as well as any baseball player I've heard!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Galstian: Another Mezzo To Fantasize About

After having spent years lighting up the stage as a soprano, Juliette Galstian, the Armenian opera singer, added her lustrous voice to the mezzo-soprano repertoire in a well received performance as Handel's Rinaldo at Zurich Opera last year.

With a voice and a personality like this, I can't wait to see a Carmen from her. She's quite up for the role!

Smorg's Favorite CD: Kasarova Does German Lieder

'Musik ist eine lebende Kunst', dieses Klischee wird von Sängern oft und gerne wiederholt. Doch obwohl sich viele Vokalisten bemühen, dem Gesungenen auch Leben einzuhauchen, gelingt eine Umsetzung dieses Mottos nur sehr wenigen. Kunstlieder werden üblicherweise so gesungen, als ob es sich um schöne Gemälde handelt, die man nur aus einer gewissen Distanz betrachten und bewundern darf. Gewandtere Liedsänger verwenden dabei die etwas lebendigeren Farben. Wenn Ihnen aber der bulgarisch-schweizerische Mezzosopran Vesselina Kasarova ein Begriff ist, dann wissen Sie, dass der Zugang dieser Vokalistin keinesfalls herkömmlich ist. Ihr eingetragener Beruf lautet zwar Opernsängerin, doch wenn man ihr zuhört, schwindet jegliche Distanz. Ihr Gesang gleicht der Erzählung persönlicher Erlebnisse. Man betrachtet keine Gemälde an der Wand, sondern wird von Kasarova auf einer Reise durch die Szenerien der Bilder begleitet.

Der Vortrag eines jeden Liedes wirkt derart persönlich und vertraut, dass mich diese CD jedes Mal in eine rustikale Blockhütte bei sternenklarer Waldnacht versetzt. Es gibt kaum etwas Gemütlicheres, als sich nach dem Abendessen vor dem prasselnden Kamin auszustrecken und einer weit gereisten Kusine zuzuhören, die voller Begeisterung von ihren vielen Abenteuern erzählt (22 an der Zahl). So viel ich weiß, sind alle Geschichten erfunden, doch das ist mir ganz egal. Ich fühle mich wieder jung, wenn meine Jugenderinnerung an die ersten Erzählungen am Kamin so intensiv zum Leben erweckt wird.

Diese Sängerin hat bei der Darstellung unterschiedlicher Stimmungen wahrlich ein goldenes Händchen. Sie klingt nie als würde sie bewusst phrasieren, um dem Zuhörer eine bestimmte Emotion zu vermitteln. Vielmehr sind ihre eigene Begeisterung, Leidenschaft, Unschuld (oder deren Gegenteil) und Melancholie dermaßen natürlich und ansteckend, dass sie nicht einmal des Deutschen mächtig sein muss, um ihren Geschichten Authentizität zu verleihen.

Im Gegensatz zum Französischen ist ihre Aussprache des Deutschen klar und ohne schlampige Silben. Diese wunderbar ausdrucksstarke Stimme ist für das Singen in dieser Sprache wie geschaffen. Der Klang ist dunkles Burgunderrot, das in allen Lagen ihres erstaunlich großen Stimmumfangs gleichmäßig ertönt. Glanzvolle und gelöste Höhen, sinnlich runde und strukturierte Mitten und an Kirschholz gemahnende, volle Tiefen zeichnen diese Aufnahme aus. Der rauchige Brustton, den sie beim Operngesang oft einsetzt, bleibt hier aus. Der beeindruckend feinfühlige Pianist Friedrich Haider präsentiert sich hier als geübter Komplize, der Frau Kasarovas Fest der Geschichten gekonnt mitträgt. Sowohl musikalisch als auch in punkto Interpretation harmonieren beide perfekt und keiner versucht den anderen in seinen Schatten zu stellen. Von der ansteckend eindringlichen 'Fischerweise' über das beschwörende 'Im Abendrot', das freche 'Der Wanderer an der Mond', das vielschichtige Minidrama 'Von Ewiger Liebe' bis zum jugendlich anmutenden 'Aufträge' das Gute an einer CD im Vergleich zu einem Konzertbesuch sind die vielen Zugaben, die man sich gönnen darf.

Das Album wurde mit viel Gefühl zusammengestellt. Es folgt keinem einheitlichen Thema die Auswahl der Stücke orientiert sich eher nach musikalischen Gesichtspunkten. Keine drei Lieder in Folge haben ein ähnliches Tempo oder Leitmotiv und immer genug Kontrast, um meine Aufmerksamkeit aufrecht zu erhalten und insgesamt den musikalischen Fluss nicht zu stören. Diese CD hat mich in einen solchen Traumzustand versetzt, dass Lied Nr. 22 überraschend früh erklingt. Im Nu vergeht die Zeit, wenn man gut unterhalten wird.

Wenn ich etwas kritisieren darf, dann die Tatsache, dass das Aufnahmemikrofon zu nahe an Frau Kasarova platziert wurde, sodass sie zeitweilig klingt, als würde sie direkt in die Ohren des Zuhörers singen. Die CD wird dadurch keinesfalls ruiniert (ich denke sogar, dass das Hörerlebnis zusätzlich an Intimität gewinnt), doch Zuhörer mit sehr empfindlichem Gehör könnten diese Aufnahmetechnik als störend empfinden.

The English version of my review is available at:

Still discovering Balboa Park

The sun showed up this morning and it's turning into a bright and sunny day! I'd think that I know Balboa Park very well by now, and I'd be wrong. Found a few more interesting plaques while roaming around today:

This is at the Spreckels Organ Pavillion. I didn't even realize that Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the great German contralto who originated the role of Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss' Elektra used to live in San Diego... Grossmont, where SDSU is, to be exact.

And this su
rprisingly (to ignorant me) politically enlightened proclamation was found in front of the House of Iran at the UN - International Cottages complex. How about that Cyrus the Great, ay!!

The International Cottages at the UN Complex in Balboa Park sure is a cool place to hang out at.
There's a squirrel that hangs near the Ukraine House that would almost feed from your hand... When nobody is watching, of course (after all, you aren't supposed to feed the animals).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Some opera listening tips for newbies

Believe it or not, opera used to be popular music once. The people in the older days had the same need to have fun and to enjoy themselves at musical events as we do now (yes, yes, even your parents were kids once, too!), and it follows that the music of the opera isn't really all that boring and unengaging as some who haven't themselves given the genre a good try would have you believe.

The problem with deciding whether you like opera or not, I think, has a lot to do with whether you have tried enough of its variations. This is a big fat classical music genre that really has something for everyone. Here are a few tips I'd give to those who aren't familiar with the opera but would like to give it a try:

1. Try many different styles of opera right off the bat. It doesn't do to say that one doesn't like opera after having heard only 2 or 3 works of the same sub-genre. How diverse is this music theater genre? Go through these clips and see/hear:
Renaisance Opera - Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland), Landi's Il sant' Alessio.

Baroque Opera - Handel's Alcina, Handel's Ariodante, Broschi's Idaspe
Classical - Bel Canto Opera - Mozart's Apollo et Hyacinthus, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), Bellini's Norma, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi

French Grand Opera - Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, Delibes' Lakm

French Opera - Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Gounod's Sapho, Massenet's Werther
German Opera - Weber's Der Freischuetz, Wag
ner's Tristan und Isolde, R Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, R Strauss' Elektra
Slavic Opera - Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame (Queen of Spade), Janacek's Jenufa
Italian Opera - Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry),
Verdi's Don Carlo, Puccini's La Boheme, Puccini's Madama Butterfly
Operetta - J Strauss' Die Fledermaus, Lehar's Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), Offenbach's La belle Helene
Modern Opera - Berg's Lulu, Adamo's Little Women, Britten's Billy Budd, Copland's The Tender Land, Tan Dun's Tea, Glass' Einstein on the Beach, Adams' Dr. Atomic

2. Listen to 'live' recordings whenever possible rather than the studio recorded ones. You see, many people develop unrealistic expectations of their opera experience from listening to studio recording too exclusively and losing touch with how difficult it is to sing these music to the live orchestral accompaniment while acting... without the benefit of re-takes and sound engineering help. Studio recordings can be taken as the ideal that such and such performer can execute the music under maximum control condition. Studio recording sessions see the singer recording each aria (song) in fragments rather than the whole way through. They don't have to compete with the orchestra volume (so beware of judging a voice size from just these recordings. A sound engineer can make an ant sounds like an elephant with a turn of his instrumental knob!).

The trade off, in return for super clean musical execution, is that studio recordings generally sound less emotionally and dramatically involved than its live counterparts do. It is hard for a singer to carry a coherent dramatic message when the scene is recreated in fragments, with the producer getting to splice the various takes in creating the final version... All in pursuit of the most beautiful sound achievable. So, it is just as unrealistic to expect a totally clean execution in live recordings as it is to expect gripping dramatic tension in studio recorded ones.

3. Go to live performance as much as possible. As
good as these singers sound on recordings and at HD broadcast to movie theaters, there is nothing that can match hearing and seeing them live on the stage... without any acoustic distortion from the recording process! And the orchestra! And the ballet dancers! When you go for the first time, though, avoid orchestra level (the expensive seating) and go for the front of the balconies instead. While it is true that sitting in the pricey orchestra level or even the dress circle can be perceived by others as a sign of your financial affluence, the sound quality there tend to be awful. With the aid of a good opera glass (binocular), which may or may not be needed, you can catch the best of both worlds (visual and acoustic) of the performance from the front center balcony for a good price!

4. Don't let the opera snobs dictate what you can or cannot like. As 'refined' as the image of this artform is, you may be surprised to find that some of its audience can turn out to be the most sophisticately barbaric people you'll ever meet. Most opera fans are nice lots, mind you, but the most vocal among us tend to be little Napoleons who won't hesitate to tell a doctor how to operate or a mechanic how to fix the car... and they sure don't mind telling you just how awful a performance you enjoy really is. Take it from me, opera is for everyone and not just a bunch of self-proclaimed music scholars who are so involved in their superiority complex that they would declare a fine performance ruined by a single smudged note that saner people would have the good sense to not get hung up on in the first place. You paid your own money to hear the music, too. As long as you aren't trying to convince others that your preference is the only acceptable one, they have no right to try to do such a thing to you.

5. Keep trying the operas that you don't like at first periodically. Opera can grow on you. There are some works that are so musically complex that it takes a bit of listening experience to come around to appreciating. If you try something and don't like it, go and listen to something else for a while... but do come back later (a day, a week, a month, a year, a few years... it doesn't matter) and give it another shot.

Sometimes it takes a different interpretative approach to make the opera 'click' for you. So do try different performances of an opera by different performers. Who knows, maybe you'll find that you like many different artists (this is a good thing! The art isn't a competition, but something that should widen your perception when you learn to appreciate its variety) rather than just one.

And last of all... Have fun! It's entertainment and not an art-appreciation class. The performers and the other audiences are just people like you are. They breathe the same air, eat food (and excrete it... there are restrooms at the opera house after all), get sick, get tired, and have feelings just like you do. Heck, I've even heard a soprano sneeze once... Don't expect perfection out of them. Expect humanity!smiley #1053

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hope Was All He Lived For: Massenet's Don Quichotte at the San Diego Opera (14 February 2009)

San Diego was finally granted a re-visit by Jules Massenet's operatic take on Don Quixote last night after a 40 years absence.

Ferrucio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte. Photo: Cory Weaver
You know the story, sort of; Don Quichotte is an old and rather delusional Spanish nobleman who drags his squire, the faithful but grumpy Sancho Panza, around the countryside looking for a quest to prove his chivalric valor. Along the way he meets and falls instantly in love with Dulcinea, a fetchingly beautiful country lady with many suitors on her hand who finds the aging knight's chivalric devotion both flattering and amusing. She sends him off on an errand to retrieve her stolen necklace from the bandit Tenebrun (which he is successful at, after having needlessly fended off many harmless sheeps and perfectly neutral windmills along the way). As grateful and happy as she is at getting her treasure back, Dulcinea finds Don Quichotte's marriage proposal an offer she must definitely refuse, even though she is apologetic about it. Deprived of the hope of ever being with the woman he loves, Quichotte gives up his ghost as Sancho looks on in distress.

So, yep, the ending isn't quite the same as what you've read in Cervantes' novel, but then the opera is based more on the French play, Le chevalier de la longue figure, rather than on the wittily satiric original novel. It is a short-ish opera at only a bit over 2 hrs (5 acts given with 1 intermission between acts 3 and 4) with Spanish coloring though still thoroughly Romantic Period French music (through-composed, of course). The tragic flavor of the story is kept light by the music that has some wicked comedic scenes by Sancho Panza to keep this opera a good introductory work to newcomers to the genre. There are
two harps in the orchestra pit, and they are put to very good use during the show. If you think 'Morning Mood' in Grieg's Peer Gynt is good, you've gotta hear the orchestral dawn that opens the 2nd act of Massenet's Don Quichotte. You can even hear the changing color of the sky as the sun creeps up from the horizon!

Denyce Graves as Dulcinea. Photo: Cory Weaver
Anyhow, like most other productions at the San Diego Opera, this Don Quichotte is traditionally staged by Ian Campbell (the SDO's general manager) himself, using Ralph Funicello's beautiful set and Marie Barrett's imaginative lighting to great effects. If anything, La Dulcinea's house may be a bit well endowed for the character, but all the scenes are both pleasing to the eye and practical for the theatrics.

The show opened with an uneven chorus (they got better as the show rolled on, though) and a rousing dancing scene (bravi to the principal dancers Lisa Solar and Pablo Pizano for their infectiously fiery attitude that kicks the opera off to a good start) with the town populace joining in singing in praise of Dulcinea's beauty. This being my first encounter with this opera, I was caught off guard by some strangely feminine sound coming out of the Dulcinea's four male suitors.... until I realized that 2 of them are actually trouser roles (male roles written for female singers)! Both Laura Portune (Pedro) and Rebe
cca Skaar (Garcias) fit so well into their male costume that it took hearing their voice to realize that they are actually ladies.

This was also the first time I heard Denyce Graves live. The 45 yrs old American mezzo is in a good physical shape and cuts a fetching figure as the opera's designate seductress, but, strangely enough, the voice seems an odd misfit for the role. I'd think that Dulcinea is dramatically a rather different role than Bizet's Carmen (who wouldn't be caught dead feeling regretful or sorry for any man) and that she has to be able to charm you. Graves' singing, however is better suited to the empathy-free Carmen than to the essentially-kind-at-heart-even-if-hardened-by-the-streets Dulcinea. I don't think she should sound refined but quite some gentleness is called for that just isn't there in this voice. The top register is rather edgy with a prominently pulsing vibrato when sung at mf or louder, the middle is really quite nicely textured and alluring, the bottom... o my... is more harshly masculine than many chorus tenors sharing the stage... and there is no real dramatic use for that sort of timbre in this work, I think. She also had a hard time with the flurries of Spanish pastiche ornamentation in the music. I think she did well with her acting on opening night, though, and there was some really nice soft singing in the final 2 acts.

As Sancho Panza was Eduardo Chama, the Argentinian bass-baritone who lighted up the stage with his aptly comical acting. He under-projected his voice a bit in the first half of the show, but adjusted nicely after the break and proves a good partner for the title role; the grumpily cynic to Quixote's untempered optimism, a lovably rude oaf to his master's vague nobility, and a spark of reality to the don's persistent delusion.

The success or failure of this opera, however, rests on the shoulders of the title role, Don Quichotte, and a broader and more dependable shoulder you won't find today than that of the Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. I don't know how tall he really is, but on the stage he was larger than life and yet still convincing as a frail old man... albeit one with a fresh and sonorous enough voice to pass for someone at least a decade younger than his actual 60 yrs! This Don Quichotte is detached from reality and yet lovably engaging, noble and yet beleaguered all at once. An avid golfer, Furlanetto is probably spry enough off the stage, but his on stage Don Quichotte was so in character all opera long you'd never doubt the uncertainty of his gait and the fragility of his health. His lovely Act I serenade was lyrically sung and his Act III prayer quietly inspiring. He stood out in crowded scenes, and filled the stage in minimalistic ones... The show was Furlanetto's and he was well rewarded with a tumultuous and long standing ovation at the curtain. Bravo maestro! That show was an ace all the way from the tee to the hole!

Final scene for Don Quichotte. Photo: Cory Weaver
The minor roles and chorus are well sung and acted, I think. I'm afraid the sung French, aside from Furlanetto's, was pretty hard to decipher much of the evening and there was a bit of a glitch with the English sur-title during Act III where it simply refused to show during Don Quichotte's prayer, and then turned back up a little out of sync for a while. The music is descriptive and the acting convincing enough for that to not matter much at all, however. Furlanetto could have been singing in Martian and there would still be no mistaking what was going on. Maestra Karen Keltner had the baton over the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in the pit and she was superbly supportive of the singers while drawing out a very French and Spanish flavor from the instruments.

Times are hard today for performance arts. Getting to hear and see such a good performance of a rarely performed opera now when most theaters are scrambling to ditch novelties for the sure-money-maker standard repertoire operas is a real treat any lover of classical music and singing should not miss. Remaining performances of Massenet's Don Quichotte at the San Diego Civic Theater are: February 17, 20, 22. Even if you can't afford the full ticket price, drop by at the theater an hour before performance time and you might be able to get a rush ticket for only $20!

Production photographs by Cory Weaver are posted courtesy of the San Diego Opera.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

To a splendidly melancholic Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day to the lovers. To the loners, though, I hope it isn't as bad for you as it is for Ariodante as he sings this disturbingly beautiful aria during the Handel opera (Ariodante).

Our hero has been fooled into believing that his fiancee, Princess Ginevra (Guinevere), had been having a tryst with his rival, Polinesso. And, being a stupendously sensitive warrior, Ariodante finds the offense very hard to live with.

This is sung by Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano who can condense tears out of musical notes, at a concert in Weimar in 2008. She is accompanied by Harry Bicket and the period instruments of The English Concert chamber orchestra.

If this catches your imagination and shakes your notion that opera is only for the high brow snobs, check out Kasarova's latest CD 'Sento Brillar' on the RCA Red Seal label. Baroque music can be a rockingly soulful thing to listen to when done by an artist like this rather than just by a singer!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The state of our economy is.... cracked.

But really... as much as I'd like to see the City of San Diego having the money to fix up such vital infrastructures like its water and sewage system and the surface of many main roads that go right by tourist attractions like this potholed intersection of Harbor Drive and Ash Street on the Embarcadero (right by the Star of India, for Pete's sake!), it is with horror that I read of how the senate had voted to specifically exclude the arts (museums included) from benefiting from the stimulus bill with the 'it isn't stimulative to the economy' rationale.

The last time I checked, performance arts institutions and museums are major employers and drive nearby local business! People who go to the opera have to get there and park ($) and eat ($) and even shop ($)... if not at the opera house, then at the restaurants and shops nearby ($). The art is a sort of cultural heritage that doesn't usually regenerate properly if let die. We stand to lose a lot with all these ballets and symphonies and opera companies (etc) going under. These companies hire skilled workers! Just because it is 'high art' doesn't mean that it doesn't require real people to operate rather than imaginary ones!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A drizzly weekend in downtown San Diego

This was a more outdoorsy weekend than I expected. The San Diego Chinese Center put on their festive Chinese New Year celebration in old China Town (the little area between the Gaslamp Quarters and the Marina District) all weekend. A few neighbors and I got to roam around a bit, checking out the shows they put on at the main stage at the corner of J Street and 3rd Avenue.
It was rather good. They had quite a big turn out despite of on and off rain (well... more like sprinkle, really). We saw the lucky lions and dragon parade twice (I think they were on 3 times a day), lots of traditional dancing from various parts of China and Mongolia, a couple of Chinese theater plays (I think one was actually a Vietnamese play, though; 'Dr Quinn and the Stone Sprout'), some Chinese music performed on traditional instruments, a really good contortionist acrobat who doesn't seem to have any bone in her body (my back hurt just watching her!), a lantern parade... For the life of me I can't seem to remember any performer's name (nor could I manage to remember how to say 'Happy New Year' in Chinese despite of the host's repeated efforts to teach us. I must really be growing tone-deaf with age).
Then... on Sunday I went out for a walk along the Embarcadero Promenade just to get away from my noisy next door neighbor shouting at his tv. It was rather cool and windy, so I kept moving to keep warm... and somehow got all the way up to the outskirt of Lindberg Field (San Diego International Airport). So I naturally snapped a few plane photos simply because I couldn't help myself. I don't know what it is with planes and trains and ships... I can't get enough of 'em.
Talking about ships, the Californian was out roaming the bay today. I thought she was just taking a few visitors out for a peaceful cruise.... until the brat of a ship fired off two smoke cannon shots right at the Carnival Spirit cruise ship before folding her sails and coming back to port. What a loveable floating terror she is!

Friday, February 6, 2009

A semi-wet day in San Diego

Ah, so it's still winter after! I could hardly tell considering how warm January had been here in San Diego, California. Our high temperature was up in the mid 70's and even low 80's in some places. This week has cooled down a bit, though. It actually rained a bit last night and on and off through out Friday. I guess I won't make it out to Shelter Island again until at least Tuesday.... I'm second only to opera singers when it comes to being germ-phobic during the winter months.
San Diego's drainage system sucks. I'm sorry, it rained hardly half an inch and they've got some flooding at street corners? I'd hate to know how bad it'd be if they are visited by a single normal rainy day a la Missouri...

Monday, February 2, 2009

A visitation from Nina: More historic sail ship in San Diego

There is another truly historic ship in town this month here in San Diego. The Nina, built by the Columbus Foundation in 1990, is now in port at Kona Kai Marina on Shelter Island for 13 days (she's leaving on Feb 16th).This is supposedly the most historically accurate replica of Christopher Columbus' Nina (of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria fame). The original ship made the complete round trip with him from Genoa to the New World (actually they landed on Hispaniola in the Caribbean) and back. Then on Columbus' 2nd trip, he made her his flag ship. Reportedly they were so dedicated on getting this replica right they actually used the original 15th century building method.... all done by hand! That makes this Nina a truly fascinating floating museum! She's open to the public from tomorrow until February 15th from 9AM - 5PM (fee is $5 per adult, $4 per senior, $3 per student, free for kids 4 yrs old and under).