Oh dear. Things must be getting bad in the Waldner household — Arabella has taken to writing to mX for advice.
I bet "Honest" is Zdenka.
Funny how things come full circle. I still remember the afternoon, almost four years ago, when I listened to a Met broadcast of L'Elisir d'Amore. It was actually sunny enough to sit outside — rare for a Dunedin summer — so I moved the speakers near to an open window and listened from the verandah. Well, until I got sick of the port wind trying to blow my libretto. I blogged about it, too — said all sort of things — and then that was that, and I doubt it even crossed my mind that I might one day be moved to revisit either my blogged opinions or the performance itself.
But here I am doing just that, and goodness me, how things have changed. In 2006, I had yet to properly connect with the world of the male voice. I was better with them than I had been, but nevertheless, the most fabulous tenor in the world couldn't move me like even a decent soprano could, and baritones? Forget it. In 2009, I acquired (let's not dwell on how) this recording of L'Elisir because — are you ready? — I wanted to hear the Belcore. Never mind that when I heard it back then, I dismissed this Belcore as "a bit stiff for me" and more or less left it there, pausing only to wonder why the name of this baritone from Geelong seemed so familiar.
I never did figure that out, but perhaps it was a rift in the space-time continuum — because of course, the Belcore was Peter Coleman-Wright, and these days, well, I'm a bit of a fan. Enough of a fan to go trawling for faintly illicit Donizetti, apparently; this is what his Pizarro, Balstrode and Mahler have done to me. Besides which, baritones generally are just far more my cup of tea than they used to be, so that a character who once seemed a bit of a necessary evil (give Gianetta more to sing, she whined) becomes a source of positive pleasure. And so he is. To be fair, Peter's Belcore still sounds more or less as I remembered; but my response is different. "A bit stiff"? Well, yes, perhaps, but appealingly so; and it's also a funny and strongly sung performance. That's probably helped by my now having some sense of his stage presence, but in any case, he's a delight, and I'm so very happy I had the chance to come back and give him another go.
This, however, was only the start of my little voyage of rediscovery. (He is only a baritone after all.) Then and now, it's the beautiful Ruth Ann Swenson who is the heart of this Elisir — and whatever my initial motivation for listening, with her very first note (which precedes Belcore's) she became my primary and happiest focus. Ruth Ann, Ruth Ann, Ruth Ann. It seems impossible I should forget how lovely she is, and yet I must have, just a little, because her Adina still managed to take me by surprise. Back in 2006 I was quite subdued about her. I described her voice as "an old friend". I said — oh dear — "Ruth Ann has never been a knee-weakening passion for me, but all the same I've had a calm and abiding affection for her for years." And, even worse, "I'm never destined to rave about Ruth Ann as I might (and have) about some others..."
Wrong, wrong and wrong. Well, not entirely. Her voice is an old friend to me. But all this "calm and abiding" stuff doesn't do her justice. I adore Ruth Ann. And I am entirely prepared to rave about her as I might (and have) about some others. Ruth Ann Swenson is a drop dead gorgeous soprano. I've loved her since before I loved opera and I don't intend ever to stop. She is sweet, stylish and heavenly to behold. I've now had the privilege to hear her in person, and she enchanted me all over again — so much so that I'll confess now what I might not have before, which is that, despite seeing Natalie's Lucia twice on the same trip, it was Ruth Ann's Ginevra which gave me the greatest pleasure during my time in San Francisco. I think four years ago I was ill-equipped (in terms both of my own faculties and of the stereo equipment at my disposal) to appreciate just how delicate and ideal Ruth Ann's Adina was. An object lesson in bel canto style, and a lesson in the unlearnable art of charm. Resist her, I dare you. You can't. She's irresistible, and so are those pearly high notes.
There are more words to eat, or at least to nibble at. My three-sentence flurry of enthusiasm for Ramon Vargas was not unwarranted — he's a very good Nemorino — but at the same time, I can't help thinking what I wrote was more wishful thinking than anything else. If I wrote as if susceptible to the charms of tenors, perhaps I'd become so. It didn't work out that way, and even now that I am susceptible, Vargas does not exactly loom large in my world of devotion. Whereas the other "Mexican RV tenor" whom I implicitly dismissed definitely does; for all his current difficulties, I remain very fond of Rolando Villazon. I also did my best to damn the opera itself with faint praise, but this time around, I felt quite differently — I was struck by just how full of colour and life L'Elisir d'Amore is, by what a tuneful and utterly likeable opera it is. I still have issues with Don Pasquale (I can't quite get past the inherent cruelty of its premise) but I'm re-adjusting my feelings about L'Elisir now, having just had so much fun with it.
The moral of the story? There isn't one especially. I just find it intriguing to see how things change (and how other things remain constant). And don't worry, I don't intend to start revisiting and rethinking every single post in my archives. It was interesting to do so this once, though; after all, one of the reasons I'm pleased I have this blog is the opportunity it affords to remind myself of how I once thought — I tend to forget old opinions once they're replaced. Part of me wants to point at my former self and mock; but it's also heartening to feel that my appreciation of this multifarious world really has deepened and expanded in the last half-decade — despite my propensity to be waylaid by singular fixation.
Is that a bit too deep and meaningful for a post about L'Elisir d'Amore and how I feel even sillier about Ruth Ann Swenson than I did a few years ago? Probably. Well, never mind. The main thing is that I got to listen to a totally delightful performance of L'Elisir — my little exercise in compare-and-contrast just added to the fun.
Well, you know what they say about good intentions. I could claim that signing up for NaBloPoMo was what cursed me, but I ought really to blame my own hopelessness for the fact that nearly a week has passed and I've not blogged a single word. Not that I imagine this frustrates anyone as much as it does me, but it does frustrate me — so here I am. And yet inspiration is still lagging behind, so all I can offer for now is a few bullet points. They'll fill the gap, and I hope to be back shortly — maybe even tonight! — with something a little more substantial.
And for my next trick ... I'm not entirely certain. If all else fails, I'm considering running a random "My Favourite Singers" series and just effusing over various objects of my devotion. Suggestions welcome. There's Pinchgut's L'Ormindo on the horizon too, of course; and if you or somebody you know has a concert coming up, do let me know — I'm obviously in need of an opera fix, however small. I might even consider Messiah.
Search engine serendipity is a dangerous and beautiful thing. I wasn't looking for travel suggestions. It was just that I got to thinking one evening, a month or so ago, about Peter Coleman-Wright and Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. He sang them in the Netherlands earlier this year, a fact which did register with me at the time; but it wasn't until much more recently — under the combined influence of his magical performances in Peter Grimes, my own growing obsession with the songs themselves, and the fact of both Peter and Cheryl having chosen recordings of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" for play during separate radio interviews — that I began to realise that this was something I wished quite desperately to hear. So I ventured into internetland with the faint hope that that April concert might have been preserved on record somehow, and promptly stumbled upon Ensemble Liaison's 2009 calendar, which listed a concert in which the group would, among other things, accompany Peter Coleman-Wright in a chamber arrangement of the Rückert-Lieder. In Melbourne.
My first, sensible thought was "No, I really mustn't." Ha. You'd think I'd know myself better than that by now, wouldn't you? And yet I managed to spend a good half hour convinced that I couldn't possibly, until finally I made that short, obvious and joyful leap to "Yes, I absolutely must", and that was that. Now I'm amazed I even hesitated for that long. If it had been any other repertoire, then perhaps I could have resisted. But I could think of no better hands in which to place the responsibility of my first live Rückert-Lieder, so I booked, and as a result, spent Thursday evening swooning in Federation Square.
For a start, the venue was fantastic, suitably intimate, and all glassed in so that you could look out to the river — and the sunset — behind the performers. It's quite something to see the backdrop change of its own accord like that: we had Mendelssohn by daylight, Schubert's "Notturno" by twilight, and by the time we reached "Um Mitternacht", night had obligingly fallen. The audience behaved beautifully, too — not a cough to be heard (I stifled my own at one point, quite traumatically) and barely any muttering. There was free wine to be had before, during intermission and afterwards, and a competition running to win even more of it. Clarinettist David Griffiths' informal introductions to the pieces were both charming and hilarious.
Forgive me as I gloss over the purely instrumental portions of the program. It isn't any sort of slight. They were lovely. The "Notturno" was quite mesmerising, and Griffiths's star turn in Brahms's second Clarinet Sonata was a joy to behold. The Mendelssohn Konzertstück which opened the program was quite entertaining, as was the story about dumplings which preceded it. These performances deserve more words, I know; but true to form, I'm saving all my words for the singer.
Both Ensemble Liaison's website and Ticketmaster promised a bracket of Liszt songs as well as the Mahler. This was already a mouthwatering prospect, but imagine my happiness when I picked up a program and discovered that Liszt was out and Richard Strauss was in. I'm sure my stars were in alignment — not one, but two (or one might even say three) musical obsessions in a single recital. Better still, the Strauss bracket began with "Cäcilie", a song I adore, and which Peter delivered with all the irresistible ardour I could have wished for. Bliss enough on its own, really, and yet the three songs which followed were somehow lovelier still. One needed neither printed translations nor any German vocabulary (even though I was equipped with both) to grasp the varied facets of love which these four songs depicted. Every subtlety was ingrained in that incandescent voice and written on his face. There were phrases in the middle two ("Breit, über mein Kopf" and "Schön sind, doch kalt") which seemed to flow silkily on and on, as if he never breathed at all — or was that me not breathing? Hard to believe this was the same language that, just a few months ago, he spat out so venomously as Beethoven's Don Pizarro; now those same Germanic syllables were all tenderness, all velvety warmth, and then, in "Nichts", all ringing jollity and good humour. My Strauss obsession and my soprano obsession go hand in hand, and understandably so, but if I needed proof that Straussian gorgeousness exists beyond the treble clef — this was it. (And then the encore — which nearly didn't happen, but we clapped loudly and made it happen — was "Zueignung", which I love even more than "Cäcilie" and in fact possibly more than any other Strauss song except "Allerseelen", "Morgen" and the Four Last. Sigh and double sigh.)
Brahms, interval and Schubert intervened, and then it was Mahler time. What can I say? To have songs to which I'm so attached in a sense introduced to me by a singer who also means a lot to me is an amazing experience — rather like having had my first and second live Four Last Songs sung by Yvonne Kenny and Cheryl Barker respectively. I could not have asked for a more heavenly introduction. Peter sang and I floated. He mingled radiant introspection with vivid expressivity, his interpretations imbued with a depth and vulnerability which were completely captivating. The soft sweetness of "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft", the exultation of "Liebst du um Schönheit", the electricity of "Um Mitternacht", all these were realised with sincerity and amber-veined lyricism. "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" is a song I've recently come to think of as quite simply the most beautiful song ever written, a conviction which Peter's searching and sublime rendition did nothing to shake. He gave these five extraordinary songs exactly the treatment they deserved: no trickery, no fuss — just open-hearted, sensitive and desperately beautiful singing whose glow stayed upon us even in the silences between.
The list of singers I've travelled specifically to hear is very short. The list of male singers I've travelled specifically to hear is even shorter — it's just Peter. My horizons, you see, are broadening. It's true I was slow on the uptake. I was brought up on sopranos and mezzos, and so I took my time coming around properly to male voices. But these days I think I'm as swayable by male voices as female ones; in fact, when it comes to Australian singers, I think my preferences are if anything a little bit skewed in favour of the baritones of the species. I might not yet be at the point of flying across the world in pursuit of Simon Keenlyside, but a trip to Melbourne to melt in the presence of Peter Coleman-Wright? That I can happily manage. And really, if anybody was going to blaze this particular trail, it had to be Peter. I may originally have been his fan mostly by association, but that's been changing for some time — and after his stunning turn as Balstrode, I'd have joined the club no matter who his wife was. He's a glorious artist, a total delight; and if you ask me, as somebody did, whether this recital was worth the trip, my answer is — a hundred times over.
Back in February, my bullet-pointed enthusiasm over Stuart Skelton prompted a commenter to wonder whether this blog would shortly boast a dedicated Skelton category. I said I'd wait till Grimes before considering that.
Let's be honest, though: I always knew the answer. I arrived at Stuart's first Australian Grimes equipped with an insane and dangerous set of expectations; expectation which he promptly rendered sane, harmless and possibly even irrelevant. Because it wasn't just that he was better than I thought he'd be — in fact, I don't know that anyone could be better than the singer my jittery heart was expecting — but that he was sublime in ways it hadn't even occured to me to imagine. It's one thing to anticipate greatness and then receive it; another to anticipate it, receive it, and yet still be completely knocked sideways by its appearance, and the latter is what Stuart caused to happen. He was at once exactly what I'd hoped for and completely unexpected. Witnessing his Grimes — and doing so at such close quarters and in such extraordinary circumstances — was been an astonishing privilege, and, in its nerve-shattering way, a total delight.
So if all that's true, then the least I can do is afford the man a category on this blog. It's a bit sparsely populated at present, but one hopes and expects (more expectations) that this will change in due course. I wish I'd had the means to follow him to Adelaide for SOSA's Dutchman, and if I hadn't overdosed so thoroughly on Streetcar the first time around, I might even be eyeing up the production's Melbourne season. But there's the Sydney Symphony's Das Lied von der Erde on the horizon, and after that, who knows? My fingers are tightly crossed and my wishlist is infinite. Sing anything, Stuart, and we will come. Category officially launched.
Oh, opera, you're such a good influence on me. Generally speaking, my literary tastes don't extend much past 1960 — but with the world première of Brett Dean's Bliss edging ever closer and usual avenues of preparation unavailable, what else was a girl to do but to read the novel?
Yes, if you're Australian, you probably don't need that incentive, because you've probably already read it, and/or have a definite opinion about Peter Carey. But I'm not Australian, and despite literally growing up in a bookshop, I'd never heard of Bliss until I heard about the opera. (I had heard of Peter Carey, though. I'm not a total philistine, honest.) I've also not seen the film, though I suppose I really must sometime between now and next March. Not that I necessarily think either book or film is absolutely vital to appreciating the opera — it ought to function as a work of art on its own terms, and I'm sure it will. In my case, though, I feel I'd like to replicate as far as I'm able the sort of popular consciousness of Bliss which so many Australians seem by definition to possess and which I, until recently did not.
Would I ever have read Bliss otherwise? Perhaps one day, but quite possibly not. Am I pleased I've read it? You could say that. All I asked was to be prepared (fore-armed?) for the opera, and lo and behold, I found — let's not say bliss — true delight. I liked the humour, the complexity and sheer imagination of it. I liked Carey's ability to take you one way with a character, lull you into what seemed like understanding, then veer unexpectedly into pyschological territory you never saw coming. I liked those sudden switches from past to present to future, unheralded, and populated by pronouns not immediately explained, so that you're just lost enough to enjoy the tangle before it's pulled straight again. I liked the tree scene and the subsequent curse (now there's an aria straight from Verdi). I don't want to live in a commune, but I'm glad Harry did. I liked Harry, even though that first page description of his oversized moustache had me preparing to feel the opposite. And above all, I liked the style of Carey's prose. Novels live or die for me on the strength of their writing; the most riveting plot in the world can't hold me if the writing is unreadable. But I love the way Bliss is written; I find Carey's wry, rambling, chatty — then swiftly poetic — style incredibly engaging.
What we can expect from Amanda Holden's libretto, I've no idea. What will be changed, removed, added, rearranged and rethought, only time will tell. (At least for those of us not privy to the years of development and workshopping this opera has gone through.) If it captures just a fraction of the lyricism and insanity and (I'm going to say it) sheer joy of the novel, though, then I'd say it's going to be at least a little bit special. Not to mention that all this bliss will be in the hands of Neil Armfield, with whom I suspect many of us are still smitten, post-Grimes.
With regards to the music, I'm even more in the dark. All I have is my imagination and Boosey & Hawkes, whose website holds a few tantalising hints. Like the entry for Dean's 2004 work Moments of Bliss, "a suite of four purely orchestral movements which will form the basis for several orchestral interludes throughout the opera". The composer's program notes on that page give a few intriguing, if fleeting, insights into the opera itself; then again, I'd imagine a lot can change in five years. The other highlight of this entry is the scoring of the suite, which is entertainment enough in itself:
Lions and gongs and whirly tubes, oh my!
4(IV=picc).3(III=corA).4(II=Ebcl,III=bcl,IV=dbcl).3(II=whirly tube,III=dbn)-184.108.40.206-timp.perc(4):I=vib/SD/sizzle cym/tgl/3gongs/7cowbells; II=lg tam-t/5tom-t/3bongos/5susp.cym(incl.1sizzle cym)/whip/marimba(shared with IV)/glass chimes/tamb/tuned gong/whirly tube; III=sm tam-t/xyl/glsp/SD/lion's roar/4t.bells/tuned gong; IV=BD/marimba/full drum kit/glsp/2tgl/1crot/tuned gong-2harp-elec.git-pft(=cel).MIDI kbd(using Ableton LIVE via Mac computer)-strings(220.127.116.11.8; pincipal 1st vln=elec.vln; 2vln/vla/vlc=whirly tube; 1 female 2nd vln="Wheel of Fortune"; all vlc/db require a medium soft timpani stick)
Then there's the song cycle Songs of Joy, which was premiered last year by Peter Coleman-Wright with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. According to one of the linked articles:
In the first song, Harry's Vision, the protagonist describes his journey through Heaven and Hell. The energetic Ballad of Little Titch is a tall story which Harry tells on his first time out after his convalescence. The final Sonnet is a serenade to the new love in Harry's life, after he abandons job and home to settle in the rainforest.
Strange to think all those Liverpudlians have heard these songs and we still haven't. My anticipation grows. I also note that one of the articles says that Peter "will take the lead role of the adman Harry Joy on stage in Australia, Germany and the UK" — we already know it's slated for the Edinburgh Festival, but Germany too? This bodes well. Our opera seems to have legs; and Peter can become to Harry Joy what Gerald Finley has to J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Finally, there is the entry for the opera itself. A few hints, although nothing especially revelatory. A couple of characters have had names slightly changed: Joel has become Johnny, Adrian has become Nigel. The small chorus of "Managing directors" sounds like something out of G&S, don't you think? The synopsis is pretty straightforward and — warning — contains spoilers. Knowing the cast, I couldn't help but read the novel with those singers in my mind's eye — even though doing so led to a few traumatic moments — and while some were a bit hard to square with their characters, others seemed immediately like perfect casting. Barry Otto notwithstanding, Peter Coleman-Wright just is Harry Joy for me now, before I've even heard or seen him in even a fragment of the role. I'll even accept the oversized moustache, if I must.
122 days and counting until opening night. Perhaps I'll start a countdown clock in the sidebar. I really can't wait.
You might notice that a little black and white badge has materialised in the sidebar. I've jumped on the National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) bandwagon, which means that theoretically I'll be posting something every day this month. You know how I feel about bandwagons. But lately my bloggish activities have slowed almost to a halt the moment Opera Australia decamps to Melbourne, and this won't do — so I'm hoping that extra sense of obligation which NaBloPoMo provides might help to keep me writing. We'll see. And I think this counts as today's post.
Meanwhile, keep those Grimes reflections coming. I'll probably start collating them on Wednesday evening.
Everyone bowled over by this season of Peter Grimes seems to share a common urge, which is to talk and talk about it, to share and preserve all the moments and memories our boggling brains can hold. This Grimes was a rare and special experience, and it was also very much a shared experience. I think that's something worth preserving in whatever way we're able, DVD or no DVD.
So I'm throwing this space open as a place to record some of those thoughts and fragments in a more genuinely collaborative way than the usual comment threads. Share whatever you'd like — a moment, a million moments, a lengthy dissertation or just an inarticulate sigh. You can do it in the comments section, or via email [primalamusica AT gmail DOT com], Facebook or even Twitter. I'll collate the contributions and re-publish them here, in one big monster scrapbook of a post.
And while you're doing that, I'll try and piece together a few of my own most cherished fragments and add them to the list.
[If you visited earlier in the day, then don't worry, your eyes aren't deceiving you. This post was quite different a few hours ago. Just one of those things.]