Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Three

January 29th, 2011

This web-post continues previous discussions about the expansion of opera’s standard repertory. (See Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part One and Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Two.)

Preparing for the Verdi Bicentennial

We are just over 23 months from the advent of the year 2013, the bicentennial of the births of Verdi and Wagner. One expects that most of the world’s larger opera companies are planning to observe these two operatic giants through mounting of their works.

Already revivals and new productions of the less performed “early Verdi” works are being performed or have been announced in Europe. Particularly notable is the increased interest in Verdi’s ninth opera (1846),  “Attila”.  The opera, about the 5th century Barbarian leader’s historic encounter with Pope Leo, was one of the most popular of his first nine operas (all composed during a seven year period) when Verdi was in his late 20s and early 30s.

Although mounted as a vehicle in the 1980s and 1990s for basso Samuel Ramey at New York City Opera, Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera, the opera is little known in the United States. However in 2010, the New York Met presented it for the first time, in a controversial production starring Ildar Abdrazakov, and it has been announced in a different production in January 2012 in Seattle for John Relyea and in a wholly new production (in conjunction with Milan’s La Scala) at San Francisco Opera in June 2012, for Ferruccio Furlanetto  and conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

“Attila”, was written six years before “Rigoletto”, an opera whose star (and those of other great Verdi hits that followed), shone so brightly as to obscure the group of operas that Verdi had composed earlier. Every so often a generation begins to rediscover works that appealed to persons from a long time before (and, more rarely, the inherent worth of some works that never had found an appreciative audience). As “Attila” is given more attention next year, we will explore those features of this work that has found itself some 21st century champions.


[Below: Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) tries to warn King Gustavo (Frank Lopardo) about the conspiracy against him at the night’s masked ball; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

[For my performance review, see: 21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010.]


One continues to see expressions of what I believe is an untenable position, that a standard of Verdi singing existed until the late 20th century that precipitously declined to a point that we no longer have singers competent to master that composer’s vocal writing. There is a precedent in musical history for the gradual disappearance of a style of singing – the florid coloratura skills of castrati sopranos and mezzos – but there was an obvious, observable reason for that disappearance. To produce the sound, an operation on boys was required, followed by years of apprenticeship, with a distressingly low yield of artists who ultimately achieved that level of fame or social status that some contemporaries might argue justified the career development requirements that all later centuries considered barbaric and forcefully eliminated.

But none of us alive today really know what the great castrati sounded like. We have to rely only on the descriptive styles of their knowledgeable contemporaries. Describing any kind of sound with written words is a perilous business. Presumably, the reviewers with some knowledge of vocal technique and the way a particular operatic role is traditionally sung, might have internal processes for recording their impressions of voices systematically, but, even informed readers of their opinions may be unable to conjure a mental aural image of the sound that the reviewer is trying to describe, and, of course, might hear the same performance and not agree at all with that reviewer’s impression.

We also have lots of people who work around opera companies or attend as audience members with clear memories of the voices of the great Verdi artists, certainly from the 1950s on. Some of these, who had heard Callas at her prime, or Tebaldi or Bastianini or Bjoerling or Pavarotti or Leontyne Price or the Young Domingo, can testify that the singers of today are not as good, even as we know they defended their favorites against the older generation that were adamant that none of this group could match Caniglia or Cigna or Lauri-Volpi or Gigli or whomever, none of whom could match the generation before them, ad infinitum.

It’s quite a different situation today. Besides the testimonials of reviewers, we have studio, “off-the-air” and “pirate” recordings, and DVDs that permit a person to hear the singers in different settings, often at many times over the course of a career. The studio recording may be somewhat endangered (see my discussion on MP3 downloads below). Nor does the aural evidence silence the debate on whom has the competence to sing what, as one can discern by browsing the highest and lowest raters of many opera performances reviewed on the amazon.com website.


[Below: Abigaille (Sylvie Valayre) devises her own ideas of how Babylon should be governed; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: Fink, Valayre and Aceto in San Diego Opera’s Exceptional “Nabucco” – February 20, 2010.]


Even so, I reviewed six performances of five Verdi operas in 2010 – in order of composition “Nabucco” (San Diego Opera), “Rigoletto” (Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London; Los Angeles Opera), “Il Trovatore” (Seattle Opera), “Ballo in Maschera” (Lyric Opera of Chicago) and “Aida” (San Francisco Opera). I found much to praise in each of the performances, and the performances in London, San Diego, Chicago and San Francisco to be particularly extraordinary experiences.

Individual performances such as Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia and Mark Delavan’s Renato in Chicago; Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Rigoletto, Patrizia Ciofi’s Gilda and Raymond Aceto’s Sparafucile in London; Sylvie Valayre’s Abigaille, Richard Paul Fink’s Nabucco and Aceto’s Zaccaria in San Diego; Dolora Zajick’s Amneris, Marcello Giordani’s Radames and Marco Vratogna’s Amonasro in San Francisco; and Sarah Coburn’s Gilda in Los Angeles matched my memories of great singers in each of these parts from our great opera “Golden Age” of the 1960s and 1970s.

I try to understand the criteria used by the “Verdi’s Paradise Lost” crowd that they believe justifies a cultural moroseness about Verdian performances, but I can’t discern what those criteria are, suspect they do not exist, and, suggest that, if needs be, everyone just recalibrate their expectations so that they can enjoy the rich Verdian singing that surrounds us today.

“Ring” and Swan Knight

I reviewed six performances of four Wagnerian operas in 2010 – three “Ring” operas (“Goetterdaemmerung” at Los Angeles Opera; “Walkuere” in Los Angeles and twice in San Francisco; “Tristan und Isolde” at Seattle Opera; and “Lohengrin” in Los Angeles).

Conflicts prevented my attending a complete Los Angeles “Ring of the Nibelungs”, although, over the period of a year, I was fortunate to see and very much appreciated the first performances of each of the four productions of Achim Freyer’s imaginative and unquestionably unorthodox approach to presenting Wagner’s epic, including his first “Goetterdaemmerung”. Even so, I was able to schedule Domingo’s incomparable Siegmund in the Summer “Ring’s” first “Walkuere”.


[Below: Siegfried (John Treleaven, front left) holds the Ring of the Nibelungs in his hand; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Standing Ovations for Achim Freyer, James Conlon, Cast of “Goetterdaemmerung” – Los Angeles Opera, April 3, 2010.]


Domingo, who has just celebrated his 70th birthday, is expected at some point to abandon the Wagnerian jugendlicher tenor roles (such as Siegmund and the title roles of “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal”), and perhaps none of these roles remain in Domingo’s future schedule even now.

Therefore, it seemed symbolic that the Siegmund in the next “Ring” scheduled for California, the Zambello production at the San Francisco Opera in June 2011, is Brandon Jovanovich, a spinto tenor, who, like Domingo before him, established his reputation in the Italian and French repertory before being tapped by San Francisco for this jugendlicher part. (He will make his Wagnerian “debut” as Froh in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” the prior evening.)

In the interview I had with him in July 2010 (see Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich) he stated that he is already contracted to sing his third Wagner role after Froh and Siegmund (his first Lohengrin), even though no one has yet seen him perform any Wagner. Subsequently, I was able to obtain confirmation from a person authorized to speak on behalf of the San Francisco Opera, that it is indeed that company, the site of Jovanovich’s first Siegmund, that has scheduled his first Lohengrin. (Separately, SF Opera’s musical director Nicola Luisotti was quoted as suggesting that “Lohengrin” will be one of the next “German wing” operas that he will be conducting.)

And the “person authorized” volunteered that another new role Jovanovich mentioned in his interview, Sergei in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” (an opera for which an important  production exists by San Francisco Opera’s Francesca Zambello), will also take place at that company, not too many years hence.

(I deliberately refrain from publishing rumors, but, with the caveat that productions that have not been announced officially – even those in the advanced state of planning –  may eventually be postponed or scrapped, I do publish information in which I have a high degree of confidence of whom and what  reasonably may be expected in future  operatic seasons.)

Bel Canto Wagner – American Style

At the beginning of this three part “Thoughts and Assessment” commentary, I referred again to my early post about the state of opera performance in 1955. Then, a decade after the rescue  from the totalitarian regimes that controlled four great opera-singer producing nations – Germany, Austria, France and Italy – Wagnerian opera performances in the United States was enriched, if not dominated by, Central and Western European artists. Now, at least in North America, it is theoretically possible to mount an entire “Ring” of world class artists trained in American university vocal studies programs with skills honed by American opera company young artists and apprentice programs.

This is not intended as an expression of a nationalistic pro-American sentiment (in fact in the U.S.  all Wagner performances are always in German, with most of  the American artists heavily investing in coaching in German diction and vocal style). But it does speak to the educational resources available in America for the singer with requisite voice and talent who aspires to opera. And the American-trained Wagnerians, it seems to me, contribute their share to what I call “bel canto Wagnerian singing” – the beautifully phrased, nuanced, long legato vocal lines that I believe that Wagner intended and which so enhances Wagnerian performance.


[Below: Tristan (Clifton Forbis) is in despair on the shores of Kareol as Kurwenal (Greer Grimsley) consoles him; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Tristan Tried and True: Clifton Forbis Sells Seattle Opera’s New “Tristan und Isolde” – July 31, 2010.]


Mid-century complete operas as “fire sale” MP3 downloads

I have previously mentioned the increasingly rich pool of operatic material that is now obtainable as MP3 downloads, permitting an inexpensive way to amass of library of historical documents of major mid-20th century artists.  In the past couple of years, several important complete opera recordings from the RCA Victor catalogue began appearing as 99 cents an act downloads. Now, it seems that every few days another gem from the Victor, EMI and Decca offerings of the 1950s or 1960s appears in the “MP3 download” offerings at amazon.com.

For example, in th elast couple of weeks I downloaded EMI’s complete recording starring Birgit Nilsson and Joao Gibin of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” for $2.97 and, in preparation for my 50th anniversary of my personal first performance of the work, of the recording starring Leonie Rysanek and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” for $1.98. Many other major recordings for which I have CDs (or even vinyls) are now available in downloads, as well as some rarities (such as Decca’s recording of Catalani’s “La Wally” for Tebaldi – four acts at $3.96) that have tempted me in the past, but which I could never get around to purchasing.

What all of this means to the future of opera recording, perhaps no one is certain at present. but suddenly the costliest of art forms has become dirt cheap in one medium. For those who wish to add complete operas to their ipods, it becomes pretty easy to incorporate complete opera acts into your daily routine. I will continue to think about and assess this development in future essays.

For those who might wish to comment on my “Thoughts and Assessments” or anything else mentioned in these web-pages, please communicate with me at operawarhorses@yahoo.com.


Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments