Monday, November 29, 2010

Guy Who Sounds Like a Woman . . Who Sounds Like . . .

Sam Shirakawa paid a visit to the Bode Museum on Museum Island in central Berlin to see an intriguing new production of Mozart's Titus:

Bode Museum Berlin
24 November 2010

Just when you think you've heard everything that has to do with up-scale vocalism, along comes Robert Crowe. The California native is a member of opera's smallest class of singers: a male soprano.

What sets a male soprano apart from a counter-tenor is the absence of testosterone in the voice. Real male sopranos produce a sound that is irrefutably "feminine." Crowe is the first male soprano I've heard, who not only fills these requirements but exudes that indefinable underlying strength which characterizes onnagata at its finest in Kabuki technique.

Crowe is currently one of five singers (all men) alternating as Sesto in a production of Mozart's Titus (La Clemenza di Tito), staged and conducted by Christoph Hagel in the ornate basilica of the recently refurbished Bode (BOH-deh) Museum on the so-called Museum Island in central Berlin. The "stage" consists of a catwalk, which bisects the rectangular basilica and runs about 120 feet from the hall's entrance area to a double-door revealing a baroque-style grand staircase. The orchestra is placed at one end of the platform. Artists make their way to and from the catwalk using both entrances. The audience is seated four rows deep on both sides of the catwalk. My place was situated near the rear of the band, where a space behind the horns functions as an access point for the performers. From this vantage point I could follow the music on the stands near me, watch the conductor, who kept an eye on the platform through a monitor, and see the stage.

I mention this peculiar (and highly effective) arrangement for the following reason: Sextus is usually sung by a female with dark-timbre. But Crowe's sound is so decisively feminine, that I thought surely he was lip-synching to a recording, when he uttered his first lines far away from my seat. It wasn't until he was singing beside me that I was fully convinced that he alone was doing the singing. At close quarters, Crowe sounds a bit like Kiri Te Kanawa on uppers circa 1969-1971. From a distance, his gripping sonority, puissant inflections and sensual vibrato recollect acoustic recordings of sopranos long past. His technique -- if you can even use that word in his case -- is astounding. It's as though his gifts were endowed, not developed: no perceptible breaks between registers, solid at the bottom, malleable in the middle and resplendent at the top. He is also blessed with a swimmer's torso and can rattle off ornamentations while crawling snake-like along the catwalk. Crowe apparently concentrates his professional activity on pre-romantic repertory, but it would be fascinating to hear what he does with Orsini, Bellini's Romeo or even Oscar and Oktavian.

Others in the strong cast on the night I visited the Bode included Darlene Ann Dobisch as Vitellia, Janin Czilwik as Servilia, Monica Garcia Albea as Annius, Hans Griepenstrog as Publio and Kai Ingo Rudolf in the title role. Dobisch and Czilwik exploited their opportunities with style and verve. Albea's bright, forward projection enlivened her delivery of "Tu fosti tradito." Griepenstrog and Rudolf offered welcome respites from the plethora of estrogenic vocalism.

Hagel traversed the heavily abridged score with energy and idiomatic tempi -- not too fast. Members of the Berliner Symphoniker -- one of the city's five major orchestras -- played as though they relish repeating the score up to six night's a week.

The production deploys dancers as wells as actors who speak the recitatives and supplementary lines in German, while the singing is performed in Italian. The catwalk thus can get crowded at times, but the arrangement works.

Titus continues at the Bode Museum through 19 December. If you can manage to get in -- it's pretty much sold out -- it will open a new window onto Mozart's masterpiece, especially if Crowe is performing.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, November 25, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Our friend, Sam Shirakawa was in Berlin last week to catch a performance of Gluck's Armida:

Gluck: Armida
Komische Oper Berlin
20 November 2010

Photo: David Baltzer

Full frontal nudity, fornication, cunnalingus, fellatio, orgies, gang bangs. Gluck's opera Armida has it all. At least Calixto Bieito's production of Armida has it all. It'a now playing in rep at the Komische Oper Berlin, held over from last season. Oh, yeah, it has some singing too.

And therein lies the problem. With more than a dozen naked men and a nude woman running about Rebecca Ringst's heavily back-lighted unit set, their dongs and boobs flapping arrhythmically to the music, it's tough to know where attention should be focused. Or maybe that's the point. Should I just go with the flow? But where is the flow taking me?

Certainly not to the creaky plot. For some reason that escapes me, numerous artists and composers over a dozen centuries have been inspired by the story of the Saracen sorceress Armida, who is determined to kill Rinaldo, the leader of the invading Crusaders during the First Crusade (1096-1099), only to hex him into falling in love with her. In the end, Gluck's Armida (he used the libretto Philippe Quinault wrote for Lully's stab at the story) can neither keep Rinaldo nor kill him. She must content her self with a valedictory imprecation topped with a high D.

Photo: David Baltzer

At the performance I heard Elena Semanova nailed that D squarely and proceeded to sit on it. She is another up-and-comer who has voice, visceral musicality and an imposing aura that enables her to hold her own in the midst of all the simulated sexual antics taking place around her.

The American tenor Norman Shankle, one of the few male cast members to keep his clothes on, presented a sweet-voiced foil as Rinaldo. I look forward to hearing him do more in this reperatory.

Olivia Vermeulen and Julia Giebel offered tantalizing (vocal) calling cards as Armida's confidantes Phenice and Sidonie respectively.

Carsten Sabrowski delivered a powerful Hidraot; Christof Schröter and Günter Papendell both showed promise fulfilled as Rinaldo's buddies Artemidoro and Ubaldo, who rescue him from Armida's clutches.

Photo: David Baltzer

Konrad Junghänel presided over a spright and transparent reading, despite occasional raggedness from some string players.

Ingo Krügler added sleek elegance to his costumes for those distaff members of the cast, who were clothed.

German translation of the Komische Oper's version is credited to Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze. In case you don't know: Berlin's Komische Oper does everything in German.

An afterword now about the nudity in this production. When the Komische Oper unveiled this production last season, both print and web media were atwitter. Nudity at the Komische Oper, of course, is nothing new. A recent production of Abduction from the Seraglio, for example, used nudity for a dramatically effective purpose. I'm not sure what Bieito's point is in displaying mostly undressed men with mostly dressed women. Once the initial surprise fizzles, so does any further impact the spectacle might have: it is neither enchanting nor erotic and, in its show of Damascan cockatalia, inaccurate: This bevy of boy-bods is clearly un-Muslim. Another issue: Damascus during the crusades may have been heathen, but I don't think its denizens were reputedly hedonistic.

While Bieito's production may be on the chuck side of beefy, its hyperactivity rarely has a dull moment.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Opera Hyperesthesia

Our own Sam Shirakawa writes from Mannheim, savoring two masterpieces fifty years apart: a bel canto pinnacle from Donizetti and Offenbach's most serious composition.

ROBERTO DEVEREUX  (Gala Concert) 30 October 2010 

LES CONTES D’HOFFMAN 31 October 2010 

It’s not often that I get goose bumps while attending an opera performance. At Mannheim’s Nationaltheater recently, though, I got such a chronic case of that tingling sensation, that I really thought I was succumbing to the vapors. 

The cause, wouldn’t you know, was a lady named Edita Gruberova, who turned up for a gala concert performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

I can’t remember with certainty the last time I heard this opera fully staged -- probably deep into the last century at the New York City Opera -- but attending Mannheim's first-ever presentation in concert-form last January reminded me of what a killer work it is, especially for any soprano trying to get her voice around the role of Elisabetta. Part of the excitement in experiencing any performance of this work, is simply the peculiar rush you get, just listening to Sills, Gencer or Caballe running the gauntlet of trills, roulades, scales and tessitura leaps with agonizing ease.  

I had all but forgotten that Edita Gruberova can do it too, maybe because her New York appearances have been relatively few and far between. She hasn’t sung with the Metropolitan Opera since 1996 in Frankfurt. She also slipped away from me because her portrayals of Zerbinetta and Violetta at the Met struck me as the work of a nightingale (the name of her recording firm, by the way) rather than a soprano assoluta.  Last year, I renewed acquaintance with her way with Lucrezia at the Munich Festival, which was satisfactory and crashed a sold-out concert performance of Norma a few months ago at Brussels’ Monnaie, where her pitch [] was only sporadically on the money. 
But Mannheim was something else. With no score in hand and a bit of stage business, Gruberova electrified the orchestra, chorus and audience with that incalculable combination of voice, technique and personality that defines diva. This was a different singer from the one that appeared before me in Munich and in Belgium. The kind of grip she exercised on her audience may be no longer be a regular occurrence nowadays, given that she’s in her 60s, but her sovereign power at holding everyone in thrall on this evening was indeed a one-in-a-hundred-performances phenomenon.
Which is not to say, she was flawless. Donizetti is at his most inspired with Devereux, but the challenges he hurls thick and fast at his lead are as merciless as they are tantalizing. He apparently composed Elisabetta specifically for the skills of Guiseppina Ronzi de Begnis (1800-1853), who also created four other roles for him. If the number of times the vocal line plunges unnervingly into the lower register is any barometer, Ronzi must have sounded cavernous down there. Gruberova in this region rings shallow. Not necessarily a shortcoming, since the part is most dazzling at its summits, where Gruberova reigns supreme, even after lo these many years. 

What Gruberova has gradually accrued over time that eluded some of her former coevals in their prime is dramatic intensity. And today, she has only two peers of which I am aware, who can trill, turn and acciaccatura unspeakable torment in this repertoire at her standard: (sorry, no names). 

Name-worthy, though, were Gruberova’s colleagues, in particular: Juhan Tralla in the title role and Marie Belle-Sandis, both of whom sang far better on this muse-driven evening than they had at the premiere earlier this year. The Mannheim Orchestra and Chorus were also up for the performance under the idiomatic direction of Andrej Yurkevych.  

Maybe I was suffering from the after-effects of opera hyperesthesia, but the performance of Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann I attended the following night was a bit dürftig. Not that anything was wrong. Good if not great singing from the principals: Istvan Kovacshazi (Hoffmann), Thomas Berau (Four Villains), Stefani Schaefer (Muse/Nicklausse) and Barbara von Münchhausen (Stella), Iris Kupke (Antonia), Maida Hundeling (Giuletta) and Anja Bitterlich (Olympia); an attractive production by Christof Nel and grand work in the pit under Alois Seidlmeier’s direction. Everything worked, but  less than 24 hours after experiencing opera Elysium in the same theater, it was just another night at the opera. 

If there was one thing that was markedly different from productions of Hoffmann I’ve attended in recent years, it was the order of the scenes. Offenbach left no official final version at the time of his death, so every production commits act-swapping in some way. Nel’s production uses Offenbach’s sequence: Prologue - Olympia - Antonia - Giuletta - Epilogue. From what I could gather, the text used is sort of variorum. Not that any of this really matters. Hoffmann has one of opera’s most flexible story lines.  

I want to be fair to the obvious effort that went into making an unwieldy opera work, so I’ll try to return to Mannheim and hear the production again.
Now an hic jacet about Shirley Verrett. Her recent death caught me by surprise in a different way than Joan Sutherland’s passing.  Hearing Joan for the first time was an event for me; hearing Shirley for the first time was a rite of passage that turned out to have little to do with music specifically but a lot to do with life.
It happened in Philadelphia at a concert in 1960: the return of Leopold Stokowski to the Orchestra he made world-famous after an absence of 19 years. Following tumultuous applause at the start of the concert, he launched into the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro The ovation for the four-minute piece seemed to go longer than the piece itself. Finally, Stoki turned to the Orchestra and started the next piece while the clapping continued. The work was El Amor Brujo.  Where was the vocal soloist? A singer billed Shirley Verrett-Carter was stated on the program as making her debut, but she was nowhere to be seen.  
About 100 bars into the music the doors of the stage shell were flung open, and a stately young black woman appeared. An audible gasp swept through the audience. This was the soloist? 
Verrett-Carter made her way with measured amble to her place at the podium. And proceeded to sing as though there were no tomorrow. 
As it turned out, there were many tomorrows and triumphs, and she never looked back.
But I look back frequently at that concert. Verrett-Carter’s dramatic entrance at that moment in the music, I learned, was the result of a mistake Stokowski was so impatient to get on with the concert, that he simply started the next piece without his soloist.  The unintended effect worked so well, that he intentionally delayed her entrance at the three remaining concerts in the series, including one at Carnegie Hall. It was a blast of luck for everybody. 
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Shirley’s supernally-timed entrance taught me that luck and timing are worth more than anything else besides good health, even money.
Later, as her fortunes in opera blossomed I began associating the lustrous smoky sound of her voice with luck, and I felt lucky to be in her presence at some high points in her career, notably her Amneris at Covent Garden and her double-duty Cassandra and Didon at the Met's premiere of Les Troyens.
So I thank Shirley Verrett (and Stoki) for the timely good fortune of bringing me to one of the most important lessons of life.
Rest in Peace.
©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Live Offerings - Saturday, November 6, 2010

Shirley Verrett died yesterday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 79 . . . .

Tributes to Dame Joan Sutherland continue apace: this afternoon, WCNY will be airing her 1959 Lucia from Covent Garden. Also, listeners may send their memories of Dame Joan by e-mail to

Revivals of Lohengrin and Parsifal from this past summer's Bayreuth Festival . . . two different productions of Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny . . .
  • CBC Two - From Canadian opera Company, Donizetti's Maria Stuarda with Alexandrina Pendatchanska and Serena Farnocchia, conducted by Antony Walker.
  • Espace Musique - From Madrid, Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with Jane Henschel, Willard White, Donald Kaasch and Christopher Ventris, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado.
  • KBYU - From the 2010 Bayreuth Festivavl, Wagner's Lohengrin.
  • KBIA2, KOHM, WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR, WPLN & WUGA: NPR World of Opera: From Covent Garden, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, with Nicole Cabell, John Osborne, Gerald Finley and Raymond Aceto, conducted by Antonio Pappano.
  • WCLV & WRTI - From Houston Grand Opera, Wagner's Lohengrin, with Simon O’Neill, Adrianne Pieczonka, Günther Groissböck, Richard Paul Fink, Christine Goerke and Ryan McKinny, conducted by Patrick Summers.
  • WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations): From Houston Grand Opera, Mozart's Don Giovanni, with Mariusz Kwiecien, Oren Gradus, Alexandra Deshorties, Raymond Aceto, Ana María Martinez, Garrett Sorenson, Fiona Murphy and Ryan McKinny, conducted by Patrick Summers.
  • BBC Radio 3 - From Covent Garden, Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, with Piotr Beczala, Nino Machaidze, Stéphane Degout and Alfie Boe, conducted by Daniel Oren.
  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, Bizet's Carmen, with Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Alagna, Erwin Schrott and Marina Poplawskaja, conducted by Marc Piollet.
  • DR P2, NRK Klassisk & NRK P2 - Also carrying the Bizet Pearl Fishers from Covente Garden (see NPR World of Opera, above).
  • RTP Antena 2 - From the 2010 Bayreuth Festival, Wagner's Parsifal.
  • Radio Oesterreich International (OE1) - From Vienna, an October 15 performance of Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with Catherine Hunold, Angelika Kirchschlager, Simeon Esper, Yves Saelens, Holger Falk, Graeme Broadbent, conducted by Walter Kobéra.
  • Sveriges Radio P2 - From Stockholm, an October 22 performance of Giordano's Andrea Chenier, with Lars Cleveman, Katarina Dalayman, Jeremy Carpenter and Magnus Kyhle, conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi.
  • Espace 2 - From the Vienna State Opera, a September 1 performance of Massenet's Manon, with Diana Damrau, Ramon Vargas, Markus Eiche, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Alexander Kaimbacher, Clemens Unterreiner, Simina Ivan, Sophie Marilley and Zoryana Kushpler, conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
  • HR2 Kultur - From Covent Garden, a December 5, 2009 performance of Tchaikovsky's Tscherewitschki, with Olga Guryakova, Vsevolod Grivnov, Larissa Diadkova, Vladimir Matorin, Mikhailov Schulmeister, Vyacheslav Voynarovsky and Sergej Leiferkus, conducted by Alexander Polianichko.
  • Klara - Janacek's Katya Kabanova, with Katja Kabanova, with Pavlo Hunka, Kurt Streit, Renée Morloc, John Graham-Hall, Evelyn Herlitzius, Gordon Gietz, Natascha Petrinsky, Georg Nigl, Emma Sarkisyan, Mireille Capelle and Blanka Modra, conducted by Leo Hussain.
  • ABC Classic FM - From the Vienna State Opera, Wagner's Lohengrin, with Johan Botha, Ain Anger, Christian Gerhaher, Gergely Németi and Alexandru Moisiuc, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

Happy listening . . . .

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Bird in the Hand . . . .

Leipzig 10 October (Premiere Revival)
Eisenach 23 October (Premiere New Production)

Der Vogelhandler in Eisenach

Forget Fledermaus. If you like/love operetta and have never heard Der Vogelhändler (“The Bird Merchant”) by Carl Zeller, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you loathe operetta, you really don't know what you're missing. Every time I hear it -- recordings or live -- I become more convinced that it’s a masterpiece.

It was a huge success at its premiere in Vienna in January, 1891. Hit productions at London’s Drury Lane and the Casino Theater in New York followed later that year. Since then, it has been rarely performed outside Austria and Germany, although it was filmed several times. The reason for its relative obscurity may reside in the libretto by Moritz West and Ludwig Held. The story of a poor song bird merchant trying to find a wife is kitchy and creaky. The eponymous hero, too, is now an historical footnote: oscine peddlers have long since gone the way of the dodo.

Ah, but the music! The score is arguably the Mother of the Modern Musical, and there is not a bum note in it.

Zeller was, by all accounts, a genius. He was born in Austria in 1842, became an attorney and began composing in his spare time. His canon of works includes about ten operettas (some of them left unfinished) and several choral works. He died of pneumonia at the age of 56, following imprisonment for perjury and injuries from a bad fall. Today, only Vogelhändler and Obersteiger (1894) are remembered and revived regularly. A pity, because his well of melody ran deep.

At the moment, there are three productions of Vogelhändler gracing the boards in Germany and Austria. So far, I’ve managed to hear two of them within a fortnight: in Leipzig and in Eisenach. To tell the truth, there’s not much to distinguish them radically. Both productions have refreshingly realistic sets and costumes (Tamara Ostwatitsch in Leipzig, Christian Rinke in Eisenach), and neither staging (Karl Absenger - Leipzig, Klaus Rak - Eisenach) would offend animal rights advocates. The Eisenach production looks a bit fresher because it’s new -- a co-operative enterprise with neighboring Meiningen (about 38 miles or 61 km away).

Musically, Roland Seifferth in Leipzig leads a briskly paced performance, and the orchestra of the Musikalische Komedie was much more attentive on October 10th than the last time I heard the ensemble play the work five years ago. Alexander Steinitz in Eisenach dwells satisfyingly on the lyrical aspect of the score, though one might welcome even more Schlagsahne in certain passages.

Vocally, the two casts are pretty much a draw. A lot of the singing is thrilling. Each cast is dominated by a superb lead tenor -- Hans-Jörg Bock in Leipzig and Jacques le Roux in Eisenach. They both have large lyric voices with enough heft to make them eligible for invitations to The Infanta’s Birthday. Before they head to the bash, though, they each could benefit from knocking off a few kilos from their midriffs. From behind a screen, Bock could pass for the much-missed Fritz Wunderlich, and le Roux sounds like a clone of wartime Franz Völker, but neither is fun to look at. Okay, neither was Pavarotti.

Both Bock and le Roux find themselves in superb company: Ruth Ingebord Ohlmann (Marie), Mirjam Neururer (Christel), Milko Milev (Weps) and Radoslaw Rydlewski (Stanislaus) in Leipzig; and Ute Ziemer (Marie), Sybille Sachs (Christel) Roland Hartmann (Weps) and Bryan Rothfuss handily multi-tasking as Stanislaus and one of the Prodekans (vice-dean) in Eisenach.

Speaking of which, few state-run German theaters must resort to so much multi-tasking as Eisenach’s main performing venue. It has been pretty much eviscerated by the current round of government cutbacks -- losing its ballet, chorus and orchestra, and it must share on, and backstage personnel with, the aforementioned Meiningen Municipal Theater. It's Never Let Me Go on an even more grotesque scale. This scandalous development is especially egregious because Eisenach is one of the cornerstones of western culture. It is, in case you don’t know, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and his house remains pretty much in its original form. It was home to Elisabeth von Thüringen (die heilige Elisabeth 1207-1231), who was the Mother Theresa of her age. Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek into German here. His atelier is located in a castle overlooking Eisenach named the Wartburg, where the Minnesingers held their infamous competitions and where Wagner set the second act of one of his operas. Everywhere you walk in this former DDR town of 23-thousand people history springs at you.

Judging from snippets of the intermission chatter I overheard, Eisenach’s performing arts public is an intelligent and engaged bunch.

They deserve their own theater.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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