Dear City Recital Hall,
Dear City Recital Hall,
Allow me to wish myself a slightly belated happy birthday. This blog turned five yesterday. I can't believe I've kept this up for so long. Thanks to those who've been reading from (almost) the beginning and to all those who've arrived in the years since. I have a couple of things in the works to mark the half decade, but like everything else lately, they're running slightly behind schedule. Watch this space.
Wandering through the Opera Australia website, as I do more often than strictly necessary, I notice a change to the so-called Radiance (what is this, the ACO?) concert. Respighi's Pini di Roma is gone. In its place, the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Wonderful! Cheryl, Strauss and Britten all in one evening. Things are looking up.
I don't mean to be so slow, things (broken modems, inherent laziness, the usual stuff) just keep getting in the way. I want to be like the New York bloggers, who have Villazon's Lucia difficulties written up almost before Anna's sung her mad scene. (Or so it seems.) But then time stretches, and stretches, and here I am almost a week later and I've managed no more than a few sentences about Die Zauberflöte. However, here I am.
You see, I promised you I'd post about something other than Butterfly. And so I shall. A million years ago (actually, just a bit more than a week ago, but it feels like longer) I was at opening night of Opera Australia's revival of Cav & Pag. And for various reasons, it has taken me until now to write anything about it. Chief among those reasons being, I suspect, plain old boredom. This was not exactly a fascinating night in the theatre.
It could have been. These are soap opera operas, after all. Abandoned women, faithless men, love, honour, duty, illicit affairs and illegitimate children, all kinds of fun stuff. And lots of big, fiery music to sing. Or not. This must have been my first complete Cavalleria (it actually isn't, but never mind) because I simply did not expect it to take such a very long time to get started. It's not that the opening scenes are lacking in beauty but the experience was far from electrifying. And even once the action proper got going, it wasn't quite the blazing row I was expecting. Pagliacci had a bit more energy to it, but some of the Cavalleria sleepiness seeped in nonetheless, and the production lost momentum just where you'd expect it to be gaining it: Tonio's Prologue was riveting, but by the time everyone started getting stabbed, the tension had dissipated. I giggled (sorry), yawned, and went home.
So, thank god for Jonathan Summers, is all I can say. If anything could tempt me back to this show, it would be his performances in both operas. He only has to stride on stage in Cavalleria and the show is his, and his singing is hands down the most interesting in the opera. Surely Santuzza, not Alfio, should be the one you're cheering for? Nicole Youl is sweet, but maybe a bit too sweet for Santuzza: as the timid outcast she was reasonably convincing, but once she got fired up, it didn't really make sense anymore — she just seemed like a needy meddler, not a tragic heroine, and — is this a terrible thing to say? — you could understand why Turiddu might want rid.
Speaking of whom: Dennis O'Neill divides me in half. I like to hear him sing. He's still one of the strongest and most stylish tenors at the company's disposal. I don't like to watch him sing. He doesn't move. There's no character development. A couple of arm flailing gestures and not much more, unless (as in Otello) the director has forced him into it. And if OA is going to keep casting him — and for all his dramatic shortcomings, I guess they should — it needs to be in roles in which he is at least vaguely convincing. Turiddu the supercool soldier, who leaves a trail of broken hearts in his wake? Please.
But a big thumbs up for the two mezzos of the piece. My mania for Jacqueline Dark is well established, so of course I was very happy to hear her as Mamma Lucia. She was surprisingly convincing as a decrepit old woman, vocally as well as physically — which actually just makes me that much keener to see her in a glamour part for once. The real surprise, though, was Dominica Matthews' fabulous Lola. No wonder Turiddu preferred her to Santuzza. I wouldn't necessarily have picked her voice as ideally suited to this kind of repertoire, but in fact she was wonderful, all husky tone and dangerous allure. And against a backdrop of Sicilian black, that red hair! What a thrill.
Broken record time, I'm afraid, but the star of Pagliacci is once again, yes, Jonathan Summers. You could go home satisfied after his Prologue. What else do you need? Maybe it's not the most luxuriant voice in the world these days, but its slender, growling quality is exactly what I like. He's a brilliantly paradoxical Tonio, menacing and yet sympathetic — not somebody you'd want to meet in a dark alley, but when he's being mercilessly mocked by Nedda, she, not he, is the villain, and you (or at least, I) can't help but like him. Likewise as he gives the drama its final flourish. He frames the opera, and so it becomes his opera. If it were all Tonio and no Nedda, I'd be back in a flash.
Dennis O'Neill's Canio is much like his Turiddu, except with a different jacket. The happy coincidence is that here, his dull stage presence is not entirely unsuited to the character. The scenes of adulation from the crowd are a bit hard to buy, but as the jealous husband with a young wife, he's reasonably convincing. He sings gorgeously of course, and has his rightful moment in the spotlight with "Vesti la giubba". Amelia Farrugia is a wicked, feline Nedda, quite fun to watch (and she looks very pretty) but disappointingly shallow — Nedda's petulant frustration with life never seems to give way to any more genuine emotion, even as she's planning her getaway with Silvio. But it's nice to hear her really sing in the middle of her voice, which hasn't happened much. Her upper register is still where all the colour (and money) is, but this at least was an improvement on her Rosina in Barbiere, who seemed to disappear every time the coloratura died down.
José Carbo is his usual magnificent self (I bet I've written exactly those words before) as Silvio. If only he had more to sing. But what he does sing is beautiful, and his sincerity to some extent makes up for Nedda's superficiality. He also does admirable double duty as a stagehand. And there's a bit of a star turn by Stephen Smith, whose slender but stylish tenor, striking physique (Teddy-philes will be happy) and irresistible comic energy have probably already gained him a bit of a following.
I know, or at least, I presume, that Maestro Licata has this kind of repertoire in his blood. And to be fair, it was pretty Italian sounding. It would want to be. But the whole performance did seem a bit leaden, somehow: sundrenched to the point of lethargy. Then again, that impression probably owed something to the dullness of the goings-on onstage. I think we could have done with a bit more urgency, both in the pit and above it.
Opera Australia has announced the lineup of conductors scheduled to undertake the engagements which were to have been Richard Hickox's during the upcoming season. Sir Richard Armstrong, already in town to conduct the company's new production of Aida, will now also conduct Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as well as the Radiance concert. Emmanuel Plasson takes over Massenet's Werther. In Melbourne, Jari Hämäläinen will conduct the autumn season of The Magic Flute. Conducting duties for Jim Sharman's new production of Cosi fan tutte will be shared by two Young Artist progamme alumni, Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo and Simon Hewett. Britten's Peter Grimes will be in the safe hands of Mark Wigglesworth, making his Opera Australia début.
(Yes, I know, troppo Butterfly. But this is it until March, and there are other posts coming, so pazienza!)
I have been feeling a little like Cio-Cio San herself, waiting and waiting and waiting, enduring disappointments and still hoping, con sicura fede and against all reason, that the adored one might come back. Unlike Cio-Cio San, however, mine is no tragedy. Proprio nel punto che ognun diceva: piangi e dispera — just at the moment when everyone said: cry and despair — our prima donna triumphed over illness and did return. They all said I was crazy for booking for so many performances. They were right, but so was I. I could have given this final matinée a miss, but I didn't. I was there, so was she, all was right in the world.
And yet, it wouldn't be the same without somebody cancelling, and so, alas, Catherine Carby obliged. I say alas, but this cancellation too came equipped with silver lining, in the shape of the always gorgeous Jacqueline Dark. I couldn't believe my luck. Anybody sitting in the stalls who let their gaze wander to my loge seat may have witnessed some slightly odd behaviour, as I stifled my squeaks of joy. Cheryl singing! And an unexpected chance to hear Jacqui Dark! Evidently those three cancellations earned me enough diva karma credit for a pretty substantial reward, and this was it.
The last vestiges of Cheryl's indisposition may still have been lurking in the shadows, but not with enough malice to make any difference. I've heard her sing through or immediately after illness several times, and it never seems to be much of a problem — I can't recall ever having heard her sound anything other than absolutely rock solid and secure. Actually, this may just have been my favourite of her three January Butterflies — or would be, if I was at all capable of choosing a favourite. That probably has something to do with my front-of-loge seat as well, always a good place to be. The glow of triumphant return (and my consequent euphoria) helped too. In fact, somebody clapped briefly at a pause in her first scene. A novice, getting ahead of his or herself? Or someone like me, saying welcome back? Probably the former, but I like to think it was the latter.
I will bore myself, as well as anyone still reading, if I attempt yet again to detail her triumph in this role. The point has been made enough times, and not only by me. But it is such a joy to witness artistry at this level, to see a singer in such utter command of every aspect — musical, dramatic, just plain physical — of her role. Watching Antoinette, as a relatively new Butterfly, find her way to a personal triumph, brought home to me once again just how phenomenally demanding Butterfly is for a soprano. A performance like Cheryl's, on the other hand, could almost make you forget that — she seems to thrive on the very aspects of it which seems most exhausting, and the harder it gets, the brighter she shines.
I'm learning to accept that I'll never do justice to Cheryl's Butterfly — or my own response to it — by throwing adjectives at it. Not that I won't stop trying — you don't get off that easily, I'm afraid — but the happy truth of that matter is that it will never work. And it shouldn't. That's what so thrilling and so joyous about this particular singer and her effect on me — as terribly cliché as it is, they're beyond words. All I can do is clutch at straws — gestures, phrases, colours — and say: I really love this.
I really love, for instance, the stillness and self containment of her Cio-Cio San, even at her bubbliest. She captures all the ardency of a besotted teenager without ignoring or masking the serious, adult emotional capacity which will gradually overtake her. I really love her ability to sculpt a natural, engaging and very believable Cio-Cio San while still committing beautifully to the ritualistic aspects of the production, the gestures and the dream/dance sequence, the bowing and so on. I really love the way, as she sings "e starem zitti come topolini ad aspettar", she mimes mouse ears in time with the music. I really love the giggles she stifles during Yamadori's visit.
And I feel like a bad person for dwelling so much on the acting and saying so little about the singing, but it's all tied up together. The commitment and beauty of her Butterfly is apparent in every facet, in her characterisation, in her every move and glance — and in the way she sings it, in the colours of her voice, in its limitlessness, in its startling power, in its rose petal loveliness, in those little turns of phrase, a word here, a note there, the big moments I brace myself for (Ah! M'ha scordata?) and the quiet moments that break my heart (un po' per celia) and all the infinite variety in between. You see what happens when I try to put her voice into words? Sentence structure breaks down, incoherence (more than usual) wins.
Which seems as good a point as any to take myself firmly in hand, and stop. Thank you, Izaghi and Izanami, Sarundasico and Kami, for allowing our Butterfly to return, if only for one afternoon, and for allowing me to be there. Now we can wish her a bon voyage and a magnificent success in Paris, and I can float back down to non-Butterfly earth for a while, until her final four performances in March. Time to remember what else the world has to offer.
1. An offer
I've just had an email from Opera Australia with the very sad news that the soprano Deborah Riedel has passed away today at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. What a bolt from the blue — I saw Deborah just months ago, in her capacity as judge of the Mathy Awards. My thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues at this very difficult time. Adrian Collette has announced that Opera Australia will dedicate opening night of The Magic Flute to Deborah's memory.
The Australian | Stage Noise (Diana Simmonds) | The Morning After (Chris Boyd) | I am a liminal being (wanderer) | Opera Australia press release | Melba Recordings | Deborah's biography at Arts Management [PDF]
06-01-09 THIRD PERFORMANCE
03-01-09 SECOND PERFORMANCE
I have a huge affection for Renée Fleming, for various reasons, and not always for her singing. Vocally, she and I have good weeks and bad weeks. I still think her disc of Mozart arias is one of the best Mozart aria discs ever recorded. I adore her in her capacity as Met in HD hostess with the mostess. But then again, I really really was not impressed with her latest recording of the Four Last Songs, despite all the gushing it has garnered from critics. So it's safe to say I've not been in the best mood with Renée lately.
With perfect timing, however, she's turned up to make me change my mind yet again. I happened across an interview on Ovation (I have cable TV now, temporarily) and she won me over in about ten seconds flat. Just as she does every time I see her interviewed. Because, however much I might question the decisions she makes, I can't question her intelligence or her passion for the art. Maybe she doesn't sing to everybody's tastes, but tihs is one seriously smart, articulate woman, utterly engaged with the music she sings and all the thought behind and around it. So if the decisions she ultimately makes don't appeal to me, well, fine, but I have to respect them when they come from such a person. When a soprano is asked "to whom do you listen, whom do you admire?" and the first names which spring to her mind are Magda Olivero and Rosanna Carteri, it's hard not to be impressed.
And also there is the singing. Which, despite those Four Last Songs, still has the capacity to be appallingly gorgeous. The interview was followed by a clip from her Tatyana at the Met. My jaw dropped. I mean, I had read all the praise for it, but still, this was amazing. Enough to make me feel I might need to own that DVD very soon. Then tonight, I managed to turn the radio on just in time for the final scene of Thais and once again, she had me in throes of delight. I suppose I'll never reach the point of loving her irrationally in every note and every role she sings but when it's the right music and the right emotion and that voice, she's perfection, and even changeable little me can't resist that.
I was all set to grumble about tonight's audience for Butterfly. Nine billion throats cleared, at least three sets of people who clattered out before it was over, a whining child, laughter in the sad bits, a couple in front of me who arrived after interval and spent the rest of the night falling asleep on each other and the place crawling with tourists. However, I take it all back. I am immensely proud of tonight's audience.
Because we stood. For Cheryl. Not for the whole cast. For Cheryl, alone on the stage, as she took her final bow. And it was a proper standing ovation, too, none of this half-hearted straggling, a few people standing because they want and everyone else following suite because they think they ought. She stepped forward and within two seconds, the entire audience was on its feet. And I've racked my brain trying to think if I've ever seen this happen here before, and do you know what? I haven't. Emma got a scattered standing ovation for her Lucia, but some of those people were just caught out on the way to catch their buses. I gave Cheryl a standing ovation of one from my loge for one of her Otellos, and four or five of us stood for her on opening night. And that's it.
In San Francisco everyone stood on every night I attended, apparently as a matter of course. Here, it isn't like that. They barely let you finish clapping before the house lights go up and you're swept out the door. So this was a bit special. Congratulations, audience. All is forgiven. You have excellent taste.
(And yes, I've got myself all out of order. Real(ish) post on Butterfly coming soon. Well, sooner than Pinkerton at any rate.)
It's the post which should write itself, but which nonetheless never seems to get written. I was going to write it after my first Arabella. Then after my last. Then during Otello, then during The Makropulos Secret. Then Christmas Eve, Butterfly Eve, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day. Something always got in the way — holidays, cable TV and that creeping fear of sappy self indulgence. However, enough is enough. The festivities are done with, the TV is switched off and if I'm self indulgent and sappy, well, you're used to that by now.