An Italian Operatic Journey: Il Tabarro, Puccini, La Tebaldi, and Zeffirelli

Tabarro Poster

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A story of infidelity and deception, murder, and infinite purgatory, a man whose music transcends, and a woman who was born to sing with Golden beams of sound that cause frenzied audiences: the combination of a lifetime and the reason behind one of the most rewarding trips to Italy I have ever taken and may ever take. I’ve thought for awhile about writing this blog entry and how or if I was going to publish one at all because of the deeply personal value of this trip for me, however the experiences and personas that I encountered, the understanding of the current artistic situation in Italy, and the state of opera in general have to be shared in order for it to gain true value.

Several months ago, when Aprile Millo was contracted to sing Giorgetta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”, I became overly excited because I have spent so much time with the great Maestro’s music.  I was tickled by the fact that her ever beautiful, but now much more lush and buoyant sound, filled with “corpo” and a cut that few singers have in this day and age, would be mingled with the harmonies in Tabarro that had haunted me the first time I heard it.  I was really interested to see how an artist of her ilk, seeking perfection and being very selective about the heroines she chooses to portray, was going to wrap her mind around a woman who is definitely one of the least honourable of Puccini’s women.  It is truly a lesson as an artist to observe someone great go through a journey of this type and boy what an honour it was for me to see this unfold.

IMG_3656 Via XX Settembre, Genoa

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View from the upstairs of the Teatro Carlo Felice

IMG_3688The beautiful Teatro Carlo Felice

Arriving in Genoa, the diva didn’t have much time to assimilate and acclimatize from the cold temperatures of New York to the more springlike temperatures of Genoa, nor the fact that we were in the north of Italy.  Nothing fazed her and off  she went to rehearsal the day after arriving.  I did not attend the first rehearsal but was busy exploring the area around the Via XX Settembre, which was of course filled with everything I adore:  bookstores, cafés, pen and stationary stores, and yes…shoe stores but we won’t talk about that…that’s another blog entry all on it’s own!

IMG_3675 Dress Rehearsal for “Il Tabarro”

The following day, I did attend the dress rehearsal in the Teatro Carlo Felice and was very interested in the construction of the theatre, especially the exposed stone walls that surround the stage.  I immediately fell in love with this orchestra.  Ma che bravissimi!!!  And, Maestro Donato Renzetti was truly a caring, diligent, and supportive conductor who allowed the singers and musicians to express while keeping the constraints of the music.  I cannot stand when Puccini is conducted like Mozart.  The music is very expansive with flex and fold and I usually become agitated when the passionate fervour of his orchestral palate is destroyed by a conductor who does not understand the important balance Puccini required  that in each of his operas is different.  Maestro Renzetti made sure to allow for expansiveness and flexibility which allowed the singers to express freely.

Donato Renzetti

Maestro Donato Renzetti

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The cast list

It was at this rehearsal that I became entranced with what Aprile was doing with Giorgetta.  I had always listened to la Tebaldi sing it and enjoyed it very much, but in this Aprile brought her own personal interpretation which was different and one that I have to say I enjoyed even more than Tebaldi’s.  Every word was expressed to the point that even the softest piani were heard in the back of the theatre.  Her sense of “parlato” was impeccable and the diction clear as a bell.  She was able to expand the character both expressively and vocally with a huge range of colour and volume.  Personally, I had never really liked Giorgetta as a character, and we’re not really supposed to the way Puccini presents her, but what I found was that I actually liked Millo’s Giorgetta.  I felt for her…I understood why she was acting the way she was.  The opera suddenly became more valuable to me within the repertoire.  I was also deeply moved by the rich chocolate baritone of Carlos Almaguer and the mezzo of Renata Lamanda who expressed their roles with elegance and personality.

The performance was gaining a lot of buzz around Italy and I was very happy to find this in the newspaper the day of the show:

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A full 3 page article discussing Puccini’s heroines in the Genovese newspaper and yes THAT is how it’s done in Italy people.  Opera gets headline news!!!  Viva L’Italia!!!  The theatre was buzzing that night and important persons were present, especially of note Signora Simonetta Puccini, the granddaughter of Giacomo Puccini himself.  She personally asked to meet Aprile before the performance and the two who are both soldiers for opera and the preservation of its authenticity became fast friends.  However, it must be noted that after the performance, Signora Puccini in my presence told Millo that her performance of “Tabarro” was the best she had ever heard.  She wished to include her photo at Torre del Lago of the great interpreters of his roles.  I already knew something historic was happening that night and Signora Puccini also realized what was being presented.  This would not be the final meeting with Signora Puccini…

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Aprile Millo and Signora Simonetta Puccini

The performance was electric.  A very lovely Suor Angelica was presented prior to, sung by the renowned Italian soprano Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi, who sang with beautiful tone and attention to every detail.  Also, of note was the singing of mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri who sang the role of La Badessa.  When Tabarro began, immediately the harmonies sweep you away into something you’re not sure you want to be in but you can’t help yourself.  Millo and her colleagues dove right in from the first utterances of “O Michele Michele.” which caused a hush in the theatre.  I was even more impressed by the expansiveness Millo showed that evening with the softest piano and two hairsplitting high C’s that are so full and yet penetrating that you’re not really sure what happened to you once they ring in the theatre walls.  The audience was in great appreciation with multiple curtain calls and a Signora Puccini who was applauding with great enthusiasm. Needless to say, honouring Puccini that evening was a great success for the Teatro Carlo Felice.

Review of Il Tabarro from the Bergamo Opera-click

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Lots of pictures and line ups of aficionados

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Maestro Valerio Galli, Aprile Millo, and Renato Bonajuto

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Renata Lamanda in praise of her colleague

Part II:  Villa Puccini

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Not only did Signora Puccini enjoy the performance, she invited Millo (and me in tow) to Puccini’s villa in Torre del Lago a couple of days later.  For me, this was the invitation of a lifetime.  I’ve spent 20 years studying the music of the great maestro and he is of course my “preferito” and so I could not believe that I was going to his home, where he had written so many of the operas I adore and those that I have fallen crazy in love with.  We arrived in Torre del Lago in what seemed to be a violent tempest of rain.  Blowing wind, water that seemed to be jumping up over the edge of Torre del Lago like some kind of wild animal, and very poor visibility because of the buckets of rain that fell.  As soon as we drove into the little town, the energy became electric for me.  Every street has the title of an opera and it is a long road that leads to one place only…the place Puccini loved, that he spent his most beloved hours in life.

IMG_3743Puccini’s statue in the distance looking at the wild water of the Lake.

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Exterior facade of the Villa Puccini

Upon arriving at the villa, my heart was pounding so hard I could hardly hear anything else.  After so much time adoring this man I never even met and probably spending more time studying him and his music than I have with even my own family, I realized that I was on sacred operatic ground.  Not only was his villa intact with everything he owned, his furniture, photos, hunting materials, and his beloved piano on which he composed, he was also buried in the villa.  Needless to say my legs were shaking.  We were met by Signora Puccini, adorable in a red toque at the door after traversing the blowing wind and rain to get in.  Aprile and I were immediately overwhelmed by the idea of where we were standing.  The first room was filled with old letters, manuscripts, and photo signed by all of the great interpreters of Puccini, a beautiful statue of Enrico Caruso in La Fanciulla del West, and a glass case in which lay the white vest and cummerbund that Maestro wore.  I looked at it almost as if trying to figure out exactly how big a man he was.  Note:  none of these photos were taken by me personally.  They are taken from online sources.

Manuscript room

We continued through the house and entered into a room in which both of us were in tears.  Everything as he left it, preserved beautifully by his granddaughter.

Puccini villa 2

Upon seeing that piano, the presence of the Maestro was palpable.  I think Signora Puccini was not sure what to do because we were both so overwhelmed with emotion.  She graciously had the glass over the keys removed so we could touch the keys and Maestro Galli, who we were with, played “Tu che di gel sei cinta” on the piano.  Never will I forget the sweet but prominent tone of that piano on which my favourite composer in the world composed the operas that steal my heart.

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But more overwhelming was the move into the the room just behind the piano where the Maestro is buried right behind the piano he loved so much to play and on which the first melodies of Boheme rang against that wall.  It was not a place of sadness but of joy, of music, of someone trying to say, my music is important and I left it for you, please honour it.  We had brought a huge bouquet of red long stemmed roses which now was placed at the foot of his sepulchre.  Finally, I was able to put my hand where he rests and say “thank you” for the beauty and joy he brings to my life every day.  Even without knowing him, the room was filled with smiles, especially from Signora Puccini who by this point understood that Aprile and I were completely devoted to her grandfather.

We were so blessed to have spent time with her and I will never forget the wonderful things she spoke about, which I will not write here simply because of the nature of a private conversation, but I must document one important thing.  It became clearly evident how much the preservation and “authenticity” of her grandfather’s music was to her and to him.  Hearing her discuss her feelings on modernizing his productions made me furious with those who think it’s ok to simply ignore Puccini’s markings, instructions, and indications on the score.  It is NOT OK for directors to just rethink Puccini.  He did the thinking!!!  Modernizing is not the issue, it is when the composer’s wishes are bypassed in order to “rethink” his art.  I will forever stand in solidarity with Signora Puccini who made it clear that her grandfather would not have been too pleased.

In all, this was a day none of us will ever forget.

IMG_3747Simonetta Puccini and Myself

Part III:  The Home of Renata Tebaldi

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This angel continues to influence young singers every day.  I did not go on this trip and expect to be so close to her and yet so far. Another person I have admired and adored, who I never met, and yet now I feel like I have.  Aprile, who had a very beautiful friendship with La Tebaldi had not been to her home since her death and so this experience was different for her than it was for me.  It was one of realization and some sadness, but joy in being with those who devote their life to her still.  In Milano now, we were greeted at the door by the president of the Renata Tebaldi foundation, Giovanna Colombo, who is busy preparing for the opening of the Tebaldi Museum in Busseto in June.  I stood beneath a huge plaque that indicated this place as one of honour in Milano because she had lived there.  Again, shaking is an understatement.

Up the little elevator we went and down a hallway where we were greeted by Marisa and a little dog who ended up stealing my heart.  Bonnie (III) is the little dog of Tina Viganò who had spent more than half her life in service to “la signorina” (she never calls her by first name).  I could not believe I was meeting her.  I was immediately hit in in the face with a gorgeous life-size portrait of Tebaldi on the wall that was so radiant you would think it was going to speak to you.  Out came Tina, a sweet, gentle smiled woman with open arms so happy to see Aprile who Tebaldi had adored as a friend and an artist.  I  was so moved to meet her but I became mute as I usually do when something affects me deeply.  All of la Tebaldi’s things were in the apartment, untouched, almost as if she was still living there. Especially moving was the piano that was the centrepiece of the room, covered with photos of important people and of the angel herself.  When I was asked by Tina to play it, I felt like I couldn’t possibly touch this instrument but I sat at the bench and collected myself before touching the keys as respectfully as I could.  A beautiful sweet sound, one that I could imagine her voice mingling with.  What a gift.

Afterwards we spent a lovely dinner talking about “la signorina” with little Bonnie (III) keeping an eye on everything but mostly on her Tina who was so watchful of her.  So many things, so many memories, I felt honoured to hear them and I felt like somehow La Tebaldi would’ve been tickled to know that Aprile was with Tina.

My beautiful pictureAprile with Renata Tebaldi

DSC_0091Aprile holding Bonnie III, Tina, me, and Giovanna Colombo

To visit the Official Renata Tebaldi Page and learn more about the beautiful Museum set to open soon please click here:

Sito Ufficiale del Comitato Renata Tebaldi

Part III: Franco Zeffirelli

Rome:  one of the greatest directors of all time celebrating his birthday and of course Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Liu’s in history, was invited to celebrate with him.  Another unexpected meeting for me, but one I was honoured to experience.  His house was a thing of beauty.  Art, and music everywhere, photos of great actresses he had worked with and singers.  The vibrance and elegance of this man, and a huge personality abounds.  With one of his many little dogs firmly planted on his lap the entire evening, he smiled broadly, welcoming everyone who was beautifully dressed  and so happy to be there.  I kept thinking of how I felt when the curtain opens on the Imperial Scene in Turandot and how majestic it is and Act II of La Boheme.  SHAME ON ANYONE who is trying to replace his magnificent artistic and creative productions.  Viva Zeffirelli per sempre!!! Happy Birthday Maestro…I was so happy to meet you!!

Aprile and Franco

Zeffirelli and Aprile Millo

1938039_10152223612963497_1304165351_n The sweetest man and a great artist

Part IV:  Various and Sundry

Some photos for your pleasure

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The facade of the Vatican

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Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa)

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The interior window of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (Milano)

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Interior of the Galleria (Milano)

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Exterior of the Galleria at night (Milano)

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Duomo Milano (at night)

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Il Colosseo (Roma)

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Piazza del Duomo (Milano)

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Il Duomo (Milano)

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La Scala and someone who loves her

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Beautiful and rainy Venezia

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Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

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A room with a view

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If one could only wake up to this every day

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The bridge of Sighs (Venice)

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St. Mark’s (Venice)

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Interior of St. Mark’s (Venice)

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Gondolas on the water

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One of the beautiful bridges (Venice)

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Beauty

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Yay for female gondoliers!  I wonder if she sings?

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Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

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I tried very hard to take this from the train.  The Alps were magnificent

Part IV:  Verdi’s Grave

It would not have been right for one of the greatest interpreters of Verdi in the world to go and pay respects to Puccini and not to her “preferito”, Giuseppe Verdi.  Straight from a long train ride from Venice to Milano, we took a cab to the Casa di Riposo Giuseppe Verdi.  Although this was a deeply personal moment for her, I feel the need to recount it for its beauty and honesty. I knew this was going to be an emotional moment for la Millo because she had not ever been to this spot (I had several years ago during a research trip to Milano and had a totally breakdown in front of that great man’s tomb).  We both became very muted and there was no one around, just the sound of her walking on the stone path that leads to his and Giuseppina Strepponi’s grave.  In the courtyard, one of the residents known to sing constantly, was singing Act II of La Bohème with such beautiful “nella maschera” singing that you could hear her from the street and she was probably 70-something years old.  I walked behind Aprile and gave her space to approach this man to whom she is so utterly connected.  In my mind I recalled her unparalleled “Ballo in Maschera” and “Aida” and all of the operas of his that she had left an inedible mark on. She stopped before entering the chapel in which the great man is buried and I watched her catch her breath although she was visibly shaking.  She entered there and immediately fell to her knees at the stone wall that separates the graves from the public.  The head bowed in complete prostration and the tears falling upon the stone….we stood in complete silence but I broke the solemnity to take this photo which I think speaks a thousand words and ought to be public for its beauty and for the devotion of this artist to this composer.  I know he would have smiled at you Aprile, for the honourable manner in which you continue to serve him not just on stage but every day of your life. Viva Verdi!!!

DSC_0519Aprile Millo at Verdi’s Grave

And so ended this time with little Tina Viganò, and Bonnie III coming in the early morning to hug Aprile and myself and say goodbye.  How beautiful it was that she came to wave and watch the car drive away, as Aprile had done the last time she saw Tebaldi leave.  We were both moved and I personally felt such a protectiveness toward Tina that I didn’t want to leave.  I cried outright at leaving this lady who in her devotion to Tebaldi became a solider of the arts herself.  This time that was filled with opera and singing, history, tears of joy, tears of gratitude, song, new friends, old friends, and the beauty of a country that remains in my heart every day.  How proud I am to be Italian and although I was born in Canada I owe so much to my great-grandparents Erminia and Ernesto for instilling in me the ways of life in Italy, traditions I keep to this day.  I promise that I will return to her much sooner than later and with a song in my heart willing to be expressed in honesty and devotion to these beautiful memories that I was absolutely blessed to have experienced.  Viva la patria!  Grazie Aprile and congratulations on a huge success. Stay tuned everyone for much more to come from her very soon!  I’ll keep you posted!

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Claudio Abbado, Rusalka, and more on the Weight/Voice issue

Abbado

Maestro Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

The most significant event in recent days was the unfortunate passing of Maestro Claudio Abbado at 80 years of age, after a lengthy illness.  Known for his devotion to Italian Opera, opera fans and music fans are devastated over the loss of this enigmatic, giving, and very special man.  The following is his full obituary from The Guardian:

Claudio Abbado, who has died aged 80, was not only among the greatest of conductors; in his last decade, after suffering from very severe illness, he raised a superband of players all gathered together for his sake, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, to heights that many listeners have never experienced in other orchestral concerts. A recording producer defined his special gift as a sense of “absolute pulse” – more precisely, an unerring sense of the right and natural tempo relations in a piece that could give shape and meaning even to the most seemingly amorphous of works, and within that a supple life to the individual musical phrases that no contemporary has equalled. He also rejected what he called the “ghettoisation” of music and refused to make a special case for “modern” music as a thing apart: he was as ardent a champion of many living composers as of Brahms or Debussy.
 
Reserved and economical of gesture in rehearsal, frequently inspirational in performance, he regarded conversation about his profession as a poor means of communicating about the act of music-making. He was surely right; his achievements at the head of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras, which elect their chief conductors, and then of the Lucerne ensemble speak for themselves.

 
He was born into a musical family in Milan. His mother, Maria, gave him his first piano lessons when he was eight years old; his father, Michelangelo, was a violinist and teacher at the city’s Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, where Claudio followed his older brother Marcello, now a distinguished pianist and composer, as a student of piano, conducting and composition. Graduating from the conservatory in 1955, he spent the next summer at the masterclasses of Siena’s Accademia Chigiana. There another promising student, Zubin Mehta, recommended him to his teacher at the Vienna Music Academy, Hans Swarowsky, whose mathematical approach Abbado was later to value for laying firm foundations and freeing him to concentrate on interpretation.
 
Abbado also benefited from the more general lessons of great masters in Vienna. In Milan, he had seen Furtwängler and Toscanini conduct; now he and Mehta joined the bass section of the Vienna Singverein exclusively to learn from the technique of Herbert von Karajan. In 1958, the year of his graduation from the academy, he travelled to Tanglewood in the US to participate in the Koussevitzky prize competition andon his own admission was astonished to come first.
 
Success, however, was still not immediate; after making his operatic debut that same year conducting Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges in Trieste and a first appearance at the Milan’s Piccolo Scala in a concert in 1960 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Alessandro Scarlatti, he turned to teaching – partly to support his new wife, Giovanna Cavazzoni, and their two children, Daniele and Alessandra. As the post was to take charge of chamber music at the Parma Conservatoire, he learned invaluable lessons about listening to other musicians and lost no time in familiarising his Italian students with scores by Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky.
 
Then, in 1963, he returned to America for another competition given in the name of Dimitri Mitropoulos; this time, he later declared, he conducted badly, the award of (joint) first prize was wrong and the whole experience revealed the iniquities of the competition system.
 
The real turning point came not with his subsequent appearance with the New York Philharmonic but two years later, when at Karajan’s invitation he chose to perform Mahler’s Second (Resurrection) Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival.
 
The large-scale late romantic symphony was to become one of the pillars on which his reputation was established, and launched his last Mahler series in Lucerne; two others followed in the shape of a contemporary opera – Giacomo Manzoni’s Nuclear Death – and Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, both of which he subsequently conducted at La Scala. Milan was not slow to offer him the post of principal conductor there, which he took up in 1968; the titles of music director and artistic director followed in 1972 and 1976 respectively.
 
Strengthening the backbone of the Scala orchestra with an injection of non-Italian players, he encouraged it to look beyond the confines of Italian opera to the wider symphonic repertoire and even to chamber music. Even so, he never lost sight of its essential Italianate singing quality and refused to record Verdi with any other orchestra – a conviction to which his 1977 recording of Simon Boccanegra is perhaps the finest testament. At the same time, other opera houses were to benefit from his supremely flexible Verdi conducting; he made his debut at London’s Royal Opera in 1968 with Don Carlos.
 
Establishment infighting took its toll on the conscientious and introspective Abbado; he resigned several times in the 1970s when La Scala politics threatened to overwhelm him. A shorter course in opera-house politics came in 1991 when he gave up his two-year post as music director of the notoriously difficult Vienna State Opera on grounds of ill-health (though he continued to serve as artistic consultant). Yet his achievements here, too, were outstanding – above all new productions of Mussorgsky’s Khovansh- china and Berg’s Wozzeck, both recorded for posterity – and his relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, which also serves as the opera’s orchestra, had been well established since 1971.
 
Three collaborations with younger ensembles brought out the best in Abbado, as they were to do in Lucerne when he conducted the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. He united the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and an outstanding roster of international singers in Rossini’s effervescent but then-neglected Il Viaggio a Reims at the 1985 Pesaro festival; the resultant recording proved a bestseller and remains a desert-island set for many opera lovers. When he took over as music director of the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1977, the astonishing results they achieved together came from a training and dedication few other international conductors would be willing to offer. The orchestra’s organiser, Joy Bryer, has spoken about his concern for the individual welfare of the young players and his tireless attempts to help them in their careers after their time in the ECYO. In 1986 he established another ensemble for whom no allowances of age and inexperience ever needed to be made, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra; their Mahler Fourth and Ninth Symphony performances are, happily, preserved on DVD.
 
Abbado would have been the first to place his concerts with the ECYO as equal in importance to his long-term work with three major orchestras. In 1979 he celebrated his appointment as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra with a typically electrifying concert of Brian Ferneyhough, Brahms – the First Piano Concerto, with his long-term concerto partner Maurizio Pollini – and Tchaikovsky, to whose symphonies he always brought a bel canto beauty of line. His programmes in the orchestra’s Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century series were both eclectic and logical; on one evening, the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony and Debussy’s Nocturnes shared an elusive tonal incandescence that will never be forgotten by those who heard it.
 
Even so, the Vienna Philharmonic remained Abbado’s ideal instrument for Mahler, and in 1990 he moved on to the greatest challenge of his careerr at that time – moulding the life of the Berlin Philharmonic after the Karajan years. On the face of it, the changes in Berlin were obvious – to extend the orchestra’s repertoire beyond the late romantic core which had been Karajan’s element. Although Abbado would voice his reservations about visiting conductors who expected to shine in the standard works for which the orchestra had become famous rather than to challenge audiences with anything new, he was in a unique position to do both. His intensive work with promising musicians continued in the Berlin Encounters concerts of the annual Berlin festival, created in conjunction with the cellist Natalia Gutman – who later, and surely uniquely for the finest of soloists, played in his Lucerne orchestra – to bring together young instrumentalists with established professionals.
 
Musical life in Berlin was not always plain sailing; Abbado was wounded, as ever, by critical campaigns against his integrity and his work with the orchestra. There was sometimes a feeling in his later performances and recordings that the old, familiar sense of challenge had gone gentle; his Mahler Eighth Symphony in Berlin, for example, proved a surprisingly soft-grained conclusion to a Mahler cycle on disc that had begun with a far greater sense of dynamism (it was the only Mahler symphony he would later fail to conduct in Lucerne, where an advertised performance was pulled and replaced by the Mozart Requiem). On the other hand, the Brahms Third Symphony that he brought to London with his orchestra in 1998 still revealed a masterly control of ebb and flow in a work which Abbado had always regarded as one of the most difficult to conduct from the technical point of view. His turning back to Beethoven at the end of a musically rich career was characteristic of the way he was able to blend a self-renewing personal vision of familiar music with a close examination of textual scholarship (in this case Jonathan Del Mar’s painstaking edition of the symphonies).
 
After radical treatment for cancer, Abbado took on a new lease of life by recreating the ideals of a Festival Orchestra in Lucerne in 2003. Not only did this usually laconic figure speak eloquently about how music had given him a burning will to live and how he felt his approach had now deepened; the players he gathered around him raised the whole notion of orchestral solidarity, at a time when the structure was coming under question, to a whole new level.
 
There were string quartets starting with the Hagen Quartet, top players from the Berlin Philharmonic and other world orchestras and a core of the youth he valued so much in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. When I met the MCO conductor Daniel Harding at the 2005 festival, he described the big orchestral collaboration as resulting in “not so much a concert as a love-in”, treasuring its uniqueness while questioning whether such a situation could possibly last.
 
It did, through to a Mahler Ninth in 2010 which I cannot be alone in unhesitatingly naming the greatest concert that I have ever heard. There were also a concert Fidelio, and a Bruckner Fifth which the ensemble brought to London in 2011. Sadly, Abbado was too ill to conduct further concerts planned in London. I count myself lucky to have seen a collaboration between the Orchestra Mozart and the Orchestra of Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where Abbado wrought supernatural magic in Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest and was warmly embraced at the end by president Giorgio Napolitano. It came as no surprise when last August Napolitano appointed him senator for life.
 
Abbado’s breadth of interests and curiosity remained a constant: a start had been made on planting the 90,000 magnolias that he suggested for Milan in 2008; later, deeply impressed by Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon, he earmarked him as the ideal collaborator for a putative production of Berg’s Wozzeck.
 
The awards and honours garnered throughout the conductor’s life would be as impossible to list as the number of truly outstanding performances with orchestras and opera companies throughout the world. What remains are the films and the discs, equalling in their mastery and outshining in their breadth those of his equals, Furtwängler and Toscanini.
 
Abbado’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Gabriella Cantalupi, and their son, Sebastiano; by Daniele and Alessandra; by Misha, his son with the violinist Viktoria Mullova; and by his brothers, Marcello and Gabriele, and his sister, Luciana.
• Claudio Abbado, conductor, born 26 June 1933; died 20 January 2014
 
 
 

Rusalka at the Met

With exciting news that Ms. Fleming is set to sing the American National Anthem at the upcoming Super Bowl, reviews for her Rusalka at the Met were mixed.  Here are a few reviews, but of course, go to the opera house and judge for yourself.  Unquestionably, Ms. Fleming has one of the  more “pretty” voices in opera but interestingly, she is having some difficulties which I think are less due to ability and more to the fact that she is singing less.  She’s frankly not old enough to be singing less but it is all about what you let people tell you…in the Golden Age of singing, singers sang until they were 70 and those techniques seemed to last just fine. I’m not sure I understand this newfound “youth age” of opera.  I’d so much rather see a seasoned performer who has been on the stage for years perform opera, rather than the “let’s find the next best thing” attitude that seems to be permeating the art form today.  It’s one thing to look for talent, but another entirely to dismiss singers whose voices work just fine because they’re (gasp) middle aged!  I mean seriously!

Zachary Woolfe’s Review (The New York Times)

Wilborn Hampton (The Huffington Post)

Anne Midgette on Fleming at the Super Bowl (The Washington Post)

Weight/Voice? What is Opera really about?

The following article appeared in the London Telegraph today and really infuriated me and will likely infuriate many opera supporters and aficionados of the authentic art.

Danielle De Niese: New generation of opera stars to combat ‘fat lady sings’ parody (Hannah Furness)

First of all, the photo accompanying this article is laughable.  Is THAT what we’re going to see at the opera?  There are a few strip clubs in my home town or a few shows in gay Paris that would offer the same view without the singing.  Geez!  If we’re supposed to be seeing this, then why on earth didn’t Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto, Leontyne Price, Kiri Te Kanawa (who is mentioned in the article), Tatiana Troyanos, Teresa Stratas, Claudia Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig….do you want me to go on?….dress like this on-stage.  Lord knows half the world would have killed to see that!  I mean really!  Is that what we are combating ‘the fat lady sings’ with?!!

There is no question, opera is about singing, about voices, or at least it ought to be….frankly, I don’t think anyone has gone to the opera to see someone’s face but to hear their voice and to be touched by it, to be pierced by the live human instrument, to be affected by the story, to exist in a world “other” than our own for a little while before returning to the often heavy reality of our lives.  When Birgit Nilsson sang, you didn’t go to see her face or to see her parade around in her skivvies, you went and you barely breathed as that voice began its ascent into the stratosphere…what she did with sheer human power and a God-given gift was what caused the sensation.  You would attend to hear Price, whose face was glorious I might add, begin her regal floating, spinning lines of gold thread and everything stood still.  These women weren’t waifs and their intension was never to parade around in a corset!!  I think if they had been asked to in this day and age, they wouldn’t have even sung because so many things are becoming disrespectful to an art that has long existed as a vocation and an obligation, not a social party to look at pretty girls and see who can get more naked on stage (I think Catharine Malfitano wins that award for her portrayal of Strauss’ Salome, in which she stripped down to the nude during the dance of the seven veils….mind you, she was a fabulous Salome vocally so her nakedness on stage wasn’t to detract from the fact that she couldn’t sing.  It was done in a dramatic impetus).

Weight, by the way, has NOTHING to do with technique.  If you know how to sing, you can sing well heavy and you can sing well thin, or in between.  There is so much being placed on this issue today that it disgusts me, and you know what the long and short of it is:  the argument is only coming from singers (and directors, casting and otherwise) who seem obsessed with worry that the fat lady is going to come and blow them off the stage because they can sing better.  1. That is not the case because you “should” be able to sing just as well thin; 2. I kind of hope she does come and blow you off the stage!!!  GROW UP!!!  WHY ARE WE DISCUSSING THIS!!!?

Opera should be about music, about stories, about drama, about VOICES.  If we wanted to hear an opera without voices we’d go to the symphony.  We go to the opera to hear VOICES!  The show of skin and the display of sex on stage nowadays does nothing except to detract the audience from what they’re really there to see.  I wonder how people would react to Maria Callas today?  Do you think she’d agree to pose in that picture that Ms. De Niese is in?  I think not!  In recent days, I had the pleasure of being in the company of one of opera’s most important and highly respected impresarios, and one of the most brilliant men about singing.  I was wide eyed like a little girl as he recounted how he and his group of aficionadi used to stand outside at the Met smoking and then would run up the stairs to hear Renata Tebaldi or Franco Corelli sing their scene, and when they were done, they’d travel back downstairs to discuss the event and smoke some more (Needless to say, this group would’ve been the pride and joy of someone like Arrigo Boito who felt that smoking was a matter of intelligencia!).  I thought about what he said a lot.  I thought about how that could happen in this day and age. Was there the possibility of a singer who would cause the aficionadi to run into the theatre and only when they sang….perhaps now they’d be running into see Anna Netrebko in her bathing suit on her terrace in the middle of a snowstorm (not kidding…true story…check the internet and no I will not post).

Some food for thought on this brisk Sunday morning.  Grab a cup of coffee and maybe put on an old recording of Price or Nilsson, or Schwarzkopf…even Flagstadt…if you’re lucky Tebaldi or Muzio….and go listen to a voice…naked in its own glory and true to the art of opera.

Happy Sunday everyone!

TLV

 

Rising Soprano, Latonia Moore to make Metropolitan Opera Debut as Aida

Latonia Moore makes her Met debut as Aida at 1pm, March 3rd, 2012

Every now and again, the opera world gets to marvel in the thrill of excitement when a young singer makes their debut…but not any debut.  A debut at the Metropolitan Opera is probably the most exciting of them all.  In a few hours, young soprano Latonia Moore will make her debut in a role that established many a great singer; Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Aprile Millo: Verdi’s magnificent Aida. In this historical and political opera, Verdi created three roles that are powerhouses of vocal prowess:  Aida, Amneris, and in my mind, Amonasro, even more than Radames.  This afternoon, Ms. Moore will sing Aida to Stephanie Blythe’s Amneris, Marcello Giordani’s Radames, and Lado Ataneli’s Amonasro.  The performance will be conducted by Marco Armiliato.  In Bocca al Lupo to Latonia!

Born in Houston and raised in Texas, Latonia Moore began her study at the University of North Texas, originally planed to study Jazz. Fortunately for opera lovers, one of her teachers convinced her to study classical music. She continued as a student of Bill Schuman at the Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia where she graduated in 2005.

She has won:

  • Richard Tucker Foundation Grant (2005),
  • first price and audience award at Concours International d’Opéra in Marseille (2003)
  • special price “Kammeroper der Internationalen Hans Gabor Belvedere Gesangswettbewerbe” (2003)
  • first price and adiance award “Internationalen Gesangswettbewerbs der italienischen Oper Dresden (2002)
  • Metropolitan Opera’s National Auditions (2000)

Here is a link to a “Sneak Peak” of Latonia’s singing from La Cieca on Parterre Box

“Cieli Azzurri” from Aida

February’s Singer of the Month: Renata Tebaldi

The glorious one with the voice of an angel:  Renata Tebaldi

One of the most beautiful Italian voices ever to grace the stage, Renata Tebaldi was born in Pesaro on February 1, 1922.  In memory of Madama Tebaldi’s birthday, having fallen just a few days ago, I decided to implement a new section to this blog called, “Singer of the Month.”  It is only appropriate, knowing my devotion to the old-school and to Italianante singing, that Renata Tebaldi be the first singer featured in this new section.  Every month, I will select a singer or artist of the past or present who has contributed their talents to the field of opera, in one way or another.

Tebaldi was one of those voices that is unforgettable.  Madama’s voice was liquid, lush, filled with vibrancy, with a burnished middle voice, a magnificent upper range, and the power of a hundred chariots.  Her charisma and musicianship combined with her God-given gift, not only made her famous in her day, she remains a true example for any young singer who wants to understand what the “real deal” is.

She studied at the Conservatorio di Musica Arrigo Boito, in Parma with Carmen Mellis and made her debut in 1944 in Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” as Elena. In 1946, when La Scala reopened, she partook in that concert under Toscanini’s baton and subsequently sang Mimi and Eva in the 1946-47 season. From 1949-1954, she sang regularly at La Scala in roles such as:  Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, Desdemona in Otello, and La Wally.  She soon made debuts in London and in San Francisco as Aida.  In 1955, she became a prima at the Metropolitan Opera, where she remained for 20 years.

Tebaldi’s voice was capable of nearly anything.  Not only did she perform the “lirico spinto” repertoire, she also delved into such roles as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Spontini’s Olympia, and Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco, showing a tremendous versatility and range.  Her Forza del Destino is the stuff of legend and I, of course, have a personal devotion to her understanding of Puccini’s repertoire, most specifically Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, and Mimi in La Boheme; not to mention Angelica in Suor Angelica.

If you’ve never watched or seen, or heard her, for that matter, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!? Her elegance, her mannerisms–a true lady–the way in which she used her hands, the beauty of her persona were all aspects that made La Tebaldi what she was, an artist of true value. Her voice lingers in one’s mind and heart, and her’s is a historical lexicon of recordings that we as operagoers, historians, and afficionados must make sure to preserve and introduce to those too young to have known about her.  On this anniversary of her birth, on behalf of all who loved her and continue to, “Madama, we remember…we can never forget and we fight that your legacy continue, that your art, as you saw it and understood it so intimately, be preserved as it were, now and always.  In grand devotion, we thank you.  Grazie mille, Brava!”

Elegance personified: a true diva, private, respectful of her art, and authentic

A Careful “Trittico” raises questions and invokes us to look at the past for answers

Stefanie Blythe as the Zia Principessa and Patricia Racette as Suor Angelica

New York Times Review of Il Trittico

I’ve included the Times’ review of the Met’s current production of Puccini’s Il Trittico to offer an opposing opinion to my own, which in this case is based on the historical area of Puccinian Aesthetics and 19th Century Italian Opera.  Although I did not have a chance to see the production live while I was last in New York, I listened to it on XM radio and so I am going to be generous in terms of comments on voices; mind you, the stylistic manner of singing is evident whether one hears opera in the theatre or live on the radio.

Having spent the majority of my education studying Puccini’s operas historically and musically, I often miss the feeling of hearing something for the first time, that virgin listening that excites us because our ear is being introduced to something new.  So, when I listen to opera I try to listen without putting my historical understanding in the forefront.  I wait to be moved first and then later reflect on historical understanding.  While I think the Met is trying to do the right thing, (I, for one, will never complain when any company wants to mount my precious Puccini’s operas) there were several things that affected the overall production being a great one.

In terms of the singing, Stefanie Blythe was my favourite singer in the production and was well-suited to her roles.  She sang with good diction and inflection, even if she tended to over sing (which is not necessary because her voice doesn’t need to be bigger in order to sing these roles).  Today, for some reason, we think that to sing Puccini one needs to have a huge voice.  This is absolutely not the case, and Puccini himself never as much once indicated this.  Instead, he looked for singers who would sing “aesthetically” well, which meant that he wanted singers who had the right understanding about how to sing his music; that is, the voice has to move from note to note by passing through all of the pitches in between.  So, how do you do that?  Essentially, it means that this music is sung with a Bel Canto technique (not with straight tone), and that the voice spins through the intervals (the spaces between notes) through portamenti, which no one seems to want to do anymore.  I’ll come back to this point momentarily

Patricia Racette, while she is courageous to approach all three roles, is suited more to Lauretta than she is to Suor Angelica and Giorgetta.  Unfortunately, she did not approach the Puccinian palate according to his requirements.  This was most obvious in the role of Angelica, which she over dramatized due to a lack of aesthetic inflection.  One thinks of Tebaldi, or Scotto in this role, singers who still remained true to the Puccinian language even up to 20 years ago.  Racette’s singing of “Senza Mamma” was lacking in the freedom that Puccini’s dramatic monologues require.  For this, I blame the conductor, who was making his Met premiere in this production.  As much as he was able to get some very beautiful colours and textures from the Met’s wonderful orchestra, Maestro Stefano Ranzani was much too careful in his phrasing and in leading the orchestra through the variety of tinte that Puccini effects in Il Trittico.

Trittico is special because it is the first opera after a break in composition after 1908 that returned to his original notion of love and death (Minnie in Fanciulla del West is one of the only heroines who does not die for love).  Puccini wrote the Trittico to correlate with that exquisite dramatic work that remains the official model for things in three:  Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. In that, each opera is to represent one of the metaphysical worlds:  Hell (Il Tabarro), Purgatory (Suor Angelica), Heaven (Gianni Schicchi).  It is also one of the reasons why Puccini was adamant that the operas not be performed separately, just as Dante did not want the parts of his allegory separated.  They do not make sense until they are combined as one.    As such, the orchestral palate in Il Trittico must change with each, a change I did not hear in this production.  The tinte that Puccini infuses into the music are inherent to the dramatic concept of the scena; in Suor Angelica, for example, the expansion of phrases and the rubato that is necessary in order to effect the text that is often declaimed.  It is the orchestra in Trittico that speaks the truth and creates the atmosphere, but in this production the strict timing and measured phrases actually stunted the overall projection of each scene.  The palate itself, unfortunately, did not sound Puccinian.

It is, however, wonderful that the Met has staged this production which originally premiered at the Met in 1918.  I ask why, when we listen to recordings of this opera in the past, or even available videos, that the singing and orchestral style are completely different from what we are hearing, as of late?  While some might call that “old-fashioned” style, I ask who labeled it as such?  Puccini died in 1924, not that long ago, and it is interesting that his aesthetic style is getting further and further away from what it was originally as we get further and further away from when he died.  Perhaps we need to take time to reflect on this and ask whether this is acceptable, especially when we do so much to retain historical performance practice in so many other genres, Bach, Baroque Music/Opera, performing on period instruments, etc… Why should performing Puccini’s works be any different?  The solution is simple, perhaps we need to look at the past for answers and remain true to what the composer wanted, otherwise, can we accurately call these productions accurate representations?

Food for thought….

Precious Giacomo….what would you have to say?