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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rossini’s Trip to Nowhere

My wife's parents, enthusiastic world travelers and lifelong opera fans, found themselves in Milan in 1985 with some extra time on their hands. Anxious to see the famed La Scala Opera House, they bought tickets on the street (my father-in-law is the maven when it comes to that) for a Rossini opera they'd never seen. Performed in Italian minus Supertitles and with no libretto in hand, they enjoyed the singing but had not the slightest clue what the story was about. A few years later, a small opera company in their native Chicago put on the same opera—Il viaggio a Reims—so they gladly attended. Armed with a libretto translated into English, the experience was no less musically enjoyable, but the storyline proved only slightly less confusing.

When Emerging Pictures decided to include Viaggio as one of its 2009-10 “Opera in Cinema” productions, I simply had to drag them along to see it. This New York-based media company has created a network of more than 60 movie theaters and arts institutions across the United States providing digital programs that, aside from opera, include art- and foreign language films, documentaries, and various other cultural programs. The Harkins Northfield cineplex at I-70 and Quebec represents Emerging Pictures in the Denver metro area. Ironically, this national list of venues also includes the Cedar-Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, which is where I worked as an usher and ticket-taker during my college days. Ah, memories!

The Thursday evening cinecast of Viaggio was taken from a performance done at La Scala in Spring 2009. Even with subtitles up on the screen, though, I found the plot difficult to follow and amazingly convoluted.** The basic premise involves a group of international travelers anxious to attend a coronation at the cathedral in Rheims, France, only to be thwarted by a lack of available transportation. Apparently other parties have usurped all the horses for rent in the region. The libretto by Luigi Balocchi, with its the characters waiting around for a chance to move forward, forces everyone to interact in all sorts of interesting ways. The opera reminds me a bit of Canterbury Tales, with the Golden Lily Inn in the French town of Plombieres standing in for Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, and an international gaggle of hangers-on substituting for such people as The Knight, The Squire, and The Wife of Bath.

Musically speaking, Rossini seems to have taken a handful of unrelated arias and ensemble pieces, stirred them up in a lottery-style rotating cage, and inserted them randomly into the score. Given his penchant for reusing themes and musical passages from one opera to the next, each piece seems more than vaguely familiar. Rossini composed this opera for a particular event—to honor the coronation of France's Charles X in 1825, which also forms part of the plot—and had already planned to reuse much of the music in subsequent productions. That's the main reason why Viaggio was performed only three times before disappearing from the world's stages for more than 150 years. Close to half a dozen set pieces turn up in his 1828 comic opera, Le Comte Ory, which became his penultimate composition. Famed American musicologist Phillip Gossett was able to reconstruct Viaggio from autograph scores unearthed at several European libraries, which led to the mid-'80s revival mentioned above (although the opera first reappeared at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 1984).

This may well be the longest one-act opera in the Italian repertoire; this particular La Scala production came in at just under two hours and forty minutes. Director Luca Ronconi gave us tons of interesting things to look at while all the singing was underway. Because the action takes place at a spa, some of the singers made their entrances in wheeled bathtubs. In keeping with Rossini’s penchant for using recitative to move the plot (such as it was) ahead, Ronconi placed a harpsichord on either side of the stage (a woman played a single-rank instrument stage-right, while a man performed on a double-keyboard model stage-left) and encouraged the singers to interact with the musicians throughout the performance. The most entertaining moment of the opera comes toward the end, where each of the principals is invited to sing a song reflective of their nationality. The German baron offers a variation on a martial theme by Haydn, the Polish countess sings a Polonaise, two Swiss provide a duet that includes a bit of yodeling, and the British lord sings the only tune he knows, “God Save the King.” At an earlier point in the work, Rossini shows off his compositional skills by crafting an a cappella double septet (14 soloists) that’s incredibly impressive.

The Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD cinecasts allow those of us who live in Opera Flyover Land (i.e., not in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco) to see and hear some of the biggest names in opera. Over the past few years we have been treated to stellar performances by Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Florez, Dolora Zajick, and Marcello Giordani, all of whom are unlikely to appear at opera houses in Denver, Detroit, or Des Moines anytime soon. But there is an entire group of opera singers who never sing here in the States, whether due to contractual considerations, personal preference, or for some other reason. Our only chance to enjoy these singers is to buy their CDs and DVDs, or to see them up on the screen. For this reason alone, Emerging Pictures is doing all of us in the United States a tremendous service.

The opera Il viaggio a Reims is a demanding one for producers, mainly because it requires the casting of no fewer than ten primary roles. Viewers on this side of the Atlantic were treated to perhaps their first exposure to three singers whose European careers have been nothing short of spectacular. Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi is perhaps best known for her portrayal of the lead character in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment, singing opposite Juan-Diego Flores in productions at Covent Garden and for Ópera Paris. One of her most dramatic roles has been preserved for posterity on DVD—an appearance alongside male soprano Michael Maniaci in the La Fenice [Venice, Italy] revival of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s final bel canto opera, Il Crociato in Egitto. French soprano Annick Massis enjoys a marvelous coloratura with clear, ringing top notes that seem to go on forever. One of her most acclaimed roles in the past several years was as Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, performed in Liege, Belgium, in 2005. She has done quite a few recordings for the British firm Opera Rara, most notably the title roles in Meyerbeer's Margherita d'Anjou [2003] and Donizetti's Francesca di Foix [2004]. British bass Alastair Miles is also a regular contributor to Opera Rara recordings, having joined Ms. Massis in Margherita and also performing major roles in Mercadante's Orazi e Curiazi [1995] and Donizetti's Dom Sebastien, roi de Portugal [2007]. He is equally at home in large choral works, appearing as the bass soloist in oratorios and masses by Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mozart. His rich, deep voice has the sonority appropriate to heavier roles without appearing overburdened, and Miles is a worthy successor to Samuel Ramey, who debuted the role of Lord Sidney in the 1985 La Scala production of Viaggio and should strongly consider retiring from the operatic stage.

** A debt of gratitude to Charles Osborne's The Bel Canto Operas [Amadeus Press, 1994]; without his brilliant plot synopsis, I would have had no clue!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Met Opera HD Broadcasts in Review—2008–09 Season

The Metropolitan Opera’s third season of distributing live Saturday matinée broadcasts via satellite has proved to be its most successful so far, both from the number of theaters carrying the performances and the quantity of tickets sold. General Manager Peter Gelb’s vision to bring top-quality operatic productions to the masses has seen the number of participating venues jump to 383 U.S. locations in 48 states (including nine theaters here in metro Denver, more per capita than any other city in the world!), and 100-plus locations in 31 foreign countries. Other companies, notably San Francisco Opera and Teatro La Scala (Milan) have jumped on the bandwagon with similar offerings—however, with far fewer venues signed up and live performances replaced by previously recorded ones—but the Met continues to lead the pack by a mile. Much of this can be laid at the feet of its exclusive 2007 agreement with the FATHOM division of Colorado-based National CineMedia (NCM), the movie theater distributor of live one-night-only concerts by such diverse performers as Garth Brooks, Linkin Park, Queen, and Celine Dion. An immediate advantage to this alliance was the ability to exploit NCM’s online advance-ticket-sales feature, which serves the dual purpose of helping people avoid long lines the morning of the performance, and also gives theater managers a heads-up regarding how many patrons to expect on any given Saturday morning. Because most of these operas are shown in multiplex facilities, a large advance-ticket sale can indicate to managers when it makes sense to add a second auditorium to handle the overflow crowd. In the United States alone, more than a million tickets will have been sold this season!

As with any opera season, the HD performances for ’08–’09 were a mixed bag—some new productions, some old productions; some memorable singing, some forgettable singing; and a selection of styles that touched on baroque, bel canto, verismo, and modern. And while the Met attracts some of the biggest names in opera—singers, conductors and directors—its two high-level constants are the amazing musicians of the Met Orchestra plus its remarkably professional chorus.

The eleven cinecasts this season included the first-ever distribution of the company’s opening night gala (although, several years ago, Gelb began showing the gala live on a giant screen in New York’s Times Square). Prior to 2008, the night was designed to give Met patrons and season-ticket holders a sneak preview of the upcoming season, featuring singers performing arias and ensemble pieces from the operas in which they would appear. This year, however, and in honor of the Met's 125th anniversary, opening night was built around soprano Renée Fleming who, for close to ten years, has been the darling of the Met stage. Her ability to draw large crowds of adoring ticket buyers has led to the Met reviving or debuting no fewer than four productions, and all because Ms. Fleming has said to them, “I want to sing the role of….”

OPENING NIGHT GALA (September 22, 2008)

This was the only non-Saturday performance on the Met’s HD schedule. Because of its evening curtain (6:30 p.m. Eastern Time), the program was shown only in the Western Hemisphere. Three fully staged scenes, all from different operas, made up the schedule. The “hook,” in addition to making Renée Fleming the focus of each scene, involved costumes designed expressly for the evening by major designers Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld (for Chanel), and John Galliano. The evening began with Act II from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” where Fleming was joined by Ramón Vargas as Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as Germont. Then came Act III of Massenet’s “Manon,” with Vargas on stage as Des Grieux, Dwayne Croft playing Lescaut, and Robert Lloyd in the relatively thankless role of the count. Completing the triptych was the final scene from the Strauss opera, “Capriccio,” where the soprano has the stage all to herself. Fleming sang magnificently in all three roles, although her weird overacting in the final piece tended to take away from the vocalization. Vargas was equally good in both his appearances, Hampson managed a fairly pedestrian performance, and Croft was his usual excellent self.

SALOME (October 11, 2008)

Did not attend.

DOCTOR ATOMIC (November 8, 2008)

I tried to like this opera; I really did. This work by John Adams, which had its debut in San Francisco in 2005, is loosely based on events leading up to the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos (New Mexico) in 1945—the Manhattan Project. Gerald Finley, a baritone who should definitely get more exposure than he’s enjoyed so far, sang the title role of Robert Oppenheimer. Bass Eric Owens was General Groves, soprano Sasha Cooke was Kitty Oppenheimer, and a few other relative unknowns filled out the ranks. I admit that I came to this production with trepidation, however, having heard a few things from “Nixon in China” and “Death of Klinghoffer” (two of Adams’s earlier operas) and pretty much hated them all. “Atomic” is not as discordant as his earlier pieces but sufficiently non-melodic to make this opera fan—ears firmly planted in the nineteenth century, thank you very much—cringe with every key change. The libretto seemed a mish-mash of technical jargon and Hindu philosophy (Oppenheimer was reportedly a fan of the “Bhagavad Gita”), and I simply didn’t care enough to stick it out. Intermission couldn’t come quickly enough, and I beat a hasty path to my car without a backward glance.

LA DAMNATION DE FAUST (November 22, 2008)

When I first saw that this opera was on the HD schedule, I was very pleased. A few years ago I’d heard this Berlioz opera in a non-staged version at Grant Park in Chicago, part of their summer concert series. I’d enjoyed the music immensely, and the bass aria “Devant la maison” is one of my favorites. Because of the reputed difficulty in staging this work—often thought of more as a free-form oratorio than an opera—this would be its first appearance on the Met’s stage since 1906. John Relyea sang Méphistophéles with his usual liveliness. As the company’s heir apparent to bass Samuel Ramey, who nowadays appears in lighter, less demanding roles such as Don Pasquale, Relyea lacks the depth of low notes of his predecessor but not his flair for the dramatic. The only drawback to HD broadcasts is that the camera highlights close-up views live audiences never see. Relyea has this annoying mouth-movement thing he does that detracts from his singing after watching him do it four or five times. Marcello Giordani, a terrific tenor who nonetheless seems more at home in the Italian repertoire than the French one, played Faust. He stumbled a few times early on but hit all the notes with authority and the right amount of zing. Susan Graham was Marguerite. Berlioz apparently did not think much of this character, given the forgettable music he wrote for her, and Graham basically gave the role a similar reading. The staging was by Robert Lepage, perhaps best known for his work with Cirque du Soliel. As a result, there was a great emphasis on technology over substance—not necessarily a bad thing, but distracting in the extreme with its reliance on video projection. In the end, I would have been just as happy with a non-staged version.

THAÏS (December 20, 2008)

This Massenet opera has enjoyed a revival, over the past decade or so, due solely to the star power of Renée Fleming. She recorded it for Decca in 2000—it was the best-selling opera CD that year—and has performed it at Lyric Opera of Chicago and in a number of European venues since then. Opposite her at this Met performance was Thomas Hampson as Athanaël, the same leading man on the Decca recording and in nearly all the aforementioned productions. Having performed together many times, it was no surprise they blended so well vocally and interacted with unbridled emotion. Neither character is all that likable, especially if you don’t buy the piety theme—which I don’t—and the story rates an 8.5 on the Operablogger Lameness Scale™ (OLS), where the wealthy courtesan gives everything up to serve in a convent while her “spiritual guide” eventually lusts after her and regrets talking her into this life-changing course of events. Oh, she also dies at the very end. Still, it has some wonderful Massenet music, and the production was nicely put together. In a supporting role, fairly unimportant to the overall scheme of things, tenor Michael Schade was terrific.

LA RONDINE (January 10, 2009)

The opera my wife calls “La Traviata Lite,” this Puccini “romance” featured the husband-and-wife team of Angela Gheorghiu as Magda and Roberto Alagna as Ruggero. It’s very nearly an operetta in tone, with several memorable tunes and a clearly transparent libretto. I was highly unimpressed with the duo’s singing. Gheorghiu did a nice job on the big soprano aria, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” but she seemed to sort of sleepwalk her way through the rest of the opera. Alagna had some serious issues with his upper register, straining unpleasantly to hit nearly every high note. I’m convinced, however, he might have shown more effectiveness had he not played grab-ass with his wife the entire time. Ruggero is infatuated with Magda, but Alagna took those stage instructions to marginally tasteful levels. Sam Ramey made several brief appearances as Rambaldo and sang well, although the role requires little in the way of legato that, at Ramey’s stage of his career, tends to show off a rather disconcerting vocal wobble.

ORFEO ED EURIDICE (January 24, 2009)

Having had its premiere in 1762, this is one of the oldest operas in the standard repertoire; only several Monteverdi works come earlier. Gluck’s setting of the mythical story, where Orpheus travels to the Underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, is effective in part because he uses the chorus much the same way classical playwrights (Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.) employed it—to comment on the action at hand rather than simply help flesh out the story line. [More on the chorus below.] Stephanie Blythe has blossomed into one of the better mezzo-sopranos of this era (surpassed, in my opinion, only by Jennifer Larmore), even though I think she’s more accurately a contralto. Blythe is perhaps best known for singing in a number of Handel operas—"Giulio Cesare," among others—and her richness of tone is ideally suited to assume the roles originally written for castrati and occasionally sung by the likes of David Daniels and Michael Maniaci. Orfeo’s best-known aria is “Che faró senza Euridice?” from the third act, and Blythe received a lengthy and much-deserved ovation from those in attendance at the Met. As Euridice, Danielle de Niese was nothing special, and I believe I would have enjoyed the performance more if intermission interviewer Susan Graham had sung in her place. Amor is a piddling role made even more so by Heidi Grant Murphy. I’m surprised someone of her seemingly limited vocal abilities is singing at the Met, even though she appears to fulfill mostly comprimario positions. Set designer Allen Moyer was either inspired or insane—even now I haven’t decided which. The chorus spent the entire opera sitting or standing on multiple stacked rows of movable scaffolding—sort of like operatic bleachers—that rolled forward or to the rear as the action on the stage demanded. Costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, each chorus member was dressed to represent an historical character—Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette, Jimi Hendrix, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. are just a few of those I recall. In the opera, the chorus is comprised of “those who have passed on,” and Mizrahi went all out. For those of us in the viewing audience, though, it tended to distract from the rest of the production, as it was almost impossible not to try and guess who each of these personages was. If the Met had only published a seating chart, we would have been much the better for it.

LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR (February 7, 2009)

This was, by far, the most anticipated production of the HD season and the one with the highest number of advance-sale tickets. A late illness caused the opera’s original Edgardo, tenor Rolando Villazón, to cancel in favor of Piotr Beczala, who was magnificent. This young tenor is definitely going places! In the title role was Anna Netrebko, and she clearly lived up to her advance press. Her singing during the famous Mad Scene brought down the house, but she did not have an even remotely weak moment during the performance. Netrebko has worked hard to improve her acting, and her Lucia showed how far she has come in just a few years. The Wolf’s Crag scene that opens the final act was a second highlight, featuring baritone Mariusz Kweicien as Enrico in the dramatic duet with Edgardo amidst lightning and thunder. In addition to the live Saturday cinecast, the Met always offers replays of each of its HD performances a week or so later—usually on a Wednesday evening. The response was so great for “Lucia” that they presented TWO replays a week apart. I must say, it was just as fantastic the second time around!

MADAMA BUTTERFLY (March 7, 2009)

This opera also required the substitution of one of its leads, with Patricia Racette stepping in for Cristina Gallardo-Domâs in the title role. I’ve never heard Ms. G-D sing, so it’s impossible for me to say whether she would have been as good as her replacement, but I can’t believe she would have been better. Racette has sung this role a number of times over the past few years, and she clearly took second (only to Netrebko as Lucia) in the season’s Best Soprano competition. Marcello Giordani returned as Pinkerton, sounding better and seeming more comfortable than his earlier performance in the Berlioz opera. Dwayne Croft appeared as Sharpless and definitely did not disappoint, with his sonorous voice and well-honed acting skills. Much was made early on regarding the role of Trouble, Butterfly’s child by Pinkerton and usually played by a precocious three-year-old. In this production by the late Anthony Minghella and his director wife Carolyn Choa, the child is represented by a puppet manipulated by three black-clothed puppeteers in the bunraku tradition (actually ningyō jōruri, to be more historically accurate) that goes back to the 1870s. The action was so lifelike that one soon forgot all about the robed men and accepted the child as real. It even got its own bow at curtain-call time.

LA SONNAMBULA (March 21, 2009)

After the hit pairing of soprano Natalie Dessay and tenor Juan-Diego Florez in last season’s mega-hit, “La Fille du Regiment,” the duo was booked to bring this fanciful tale by Vincenzo Bellini back to the Met’s stage, where it had not been seen since 1972. The opera proved a popular bel canto vehicle for soprano luminaries such as Leyla Gencer, Renata Scotto and Joan Sutherland—who recorded it for Decca with Luciano Pavarotti—and tenors Beniamino Gigli and Nicolai Gedda, even though it is probably only ranked fourth-best of Bellini’s ten operas: “Norma,” “I Puritani” and “I Capuletti ed i Montecchi” rate higher both in number of productions and frequency of recordings. Set by librettist extraordinaire Felice Romani in a Swiss village, the story is only moderately lame—perhaps a 6.0 on the OLS—and clearly ameliorated by those gorgeous Bellini tunes. In what has easily become the biggest controversy of this Met season, this production by Mary Zimmerman (and, some have said, thanks to the insistence of Ms. Dessay) instead places the opera in the current day where an opera company is rehearsing a production of “La Sonnambula.” While interesting on its surface, this story-within-a-story falls apart just slightly past the first act’s halfway point and appears to have been abandoned entirely after intermission. Sadly, this contrived plot twisting effectively reduces one’s ability to concentrate fully on the singing. On opening night the Met audience roundly booed director Zimmerman when she took her bow at the end of the opera, and several negative reviews—including a particularly scathing one in the “New York Times”—may have led to lower attendance figures for the HD performance. That was a shame, since Florez gave a magnificent performance from both a vocal and stage-worthy aspect. Ms. Dessay began with some vocal distress, sounding almost as if she were fighting a cold, but midway through the first act she appeared to shake it off. Both their voices blend perfectly in whatever they happen to sing together, and this performance was no exception. Dessay has a tendency to mug a bit for the camera—she played it awfully close to the edge in last year’s “Regiment”—but except for a few mildly distracting quirks, we saw a more restrained and in-control Natalie.

LA CENERENTOLA (May 9, 2009)

Will not attend.

Next season’s HD schedule has already been announced. I will discuss it further in a later posting, but here is the list:

Tosca (October 10, 2009):
Karita Mattila, Marcelo Álvarez, Juha Uusitalo, Paul Plishka.

Aida (October 24):
Violeta Urmana, Dolora Zajick, Johan Botha, Carlo Guelfi.

Turandot (November 7):
Maria Guleghina, Marina Poplavskaya, Marcello Giordani, Samuel Ramey.

Le contes d’Hoffman (December 19):
Kathleen Kim, Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Elina Garanča, Rolando Villazón, René Pape.

Der Rosenkavalier (January 9, 2010):
Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Christine Schäfer, Eric Cutler, Thomas Allen, Kristinn Sigmundsson.

Carmen (January 16):
Barbara Frittoli, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Mariusz Kwiecien.

Simon Boccanegra (February 6):
Adrianne Pieczonka, Marcello Giordani, Plácido Domingo, James Morris.

Hamlet March 27):
Natalie Dessay, Jennifer Larmore, Toby Spence, Simon Keenlyside, James Morris.

Armida (May 1):

Renée Fleming, Lawrence Brownlee, Bruce Ford, José Manuel Zapata, Barry Banks, Kobie van Rensburg.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Blogging vs. Writing

The music magazine to which I contribute classical music and opera articles and reviews every month recently launched its newly revised Web site. It’s now possible to go online and read every story in our March 2008 issue. Archived stories from back issues will begin to appear over time, but at least it’s an opportunity—from this point forward—for people to get their Denver-area music fix without needing to pick up a physical copy from a local retail establishment.

Writing for a print publication is far different than composing material for online consumption. Bandwidth issues aside, an author can run on ad nauseum in cyberspace with no negative cost consequences—other than perhaps driving away one’s readers. In the world of paper and ink, however, space is a closely guarded resource. Editors constantly seek to balance out publishing enough interesting material to keep readers engaged, and selling enough ad space to pay for the size of the magazine that’s being printed. Standards are declared and then fought over as if the conflict was as dire as the Second Battle of the Marne.

From a professional standpoint I’m more of an editor than a writer. [Some of my more recalcitrant readers might be tempted to chime in, “Umm, not much of either, actually,” but that’s OK.] Over the years I’ve found that shorter is quite often better, and I’m constantly striving to trim rather than expand and still get across whatever point I’m hoping to raise. The difference between a 400-word blog post and one that’s 600 words in length is hardly noticeable to a screen-scroller, but the difference in print can drastically affect page design.

Our music magazine sets strict word-count standards based upon the type of article being submitted. Feature stories must not exceed 500 words, while CD reviews top out at 175. Concert reviews should run no more than 250 words, but they’re permitted to grow to 400 if it’s the only article in the genre that month. I usually find myself writing half again as much as the guidelines mandate before snipping out words, sentences, and even entire concepts to match the proper length. It’s a terrific exercise in self-restraint, and a humbling one. It’s not my place to show the reader how much I know about a particular subject, but rather engage their interest enough to want to learn more about that performer—which might involve attending a future concert or perhaps purchasing their music. Oftentimes I’ll write my article shortly after attending the event or conducting the interview. A day or two later I’ll pick it up again, reading it as I imagine a casual reader of our publication might discover it. Invariably I find myself chopping out pedantic phrases and unnecessary references. I’m not attempting to “dumb it down” but rather tighten the prose to better adhere to a newspaper-like tone. Once I’ve gone through the piece half a dozen times, I’m usually close to or even slightly below the target word count. This gives my editor the room to adjust a phrase here or there without exceeding my allotted space, even though a 503-word feature story isn’t tragically overstepping the boundary.

Of course, none of these elements are of much concern in the blogosphere. I’m able to free-associate pretty much anything within the framework of any particular essay—so long as it appears to relate to the topic under discussion—and I’m practically compelled to do that considering the way my creaky old mind works. Sometimes the best way to make an essay more entertaining or to get a point across about a particular opera production is to dredge up a “Simpsons” reference, or mention something my cat did (or coughed up, depending upon the efficacy of said production). I suppose that’s one of the reasons I always enjoyed watching the TV series, “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Having obscure pop references thrown at you a mile a minute was a great way to keep your mind sharp while laughing at some piece-of-dreck feature film, although I can’t imagine anyone sitting through one of those shows without the “pause” and “rewind” buttons constantly in use.

But I digress…as usual. BTW, there are 719 words in this posting according to the MSWord tool Word Count—one of the best of Bill Gates’s inventions.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Operablogger Marks Return After One-Year Hiatus

Last November I grabbed my blog-toys and headed for home, metaphorically speaking. Personal and professional obstacles prevented me from devoting the sort of intellectual effort I felt this blog needed to remain a viable part of the opera commentary community, and so I quit cold turkey—even to the point of no longer reading the posts of my much-admired blogging colleagues. You know who you are!

Since then I’ve lost a full-time job, found a new (better!) one, lost a parent, gained two kitties—not that I’m trying to equate those two polarizing events—and pretty much given up on my dream to write the great operatic novel. My writing career did receive a boost when I was named to the post of Classical/Opera columnist for a monthly Denver-area music magazine, and I’ve contributed feature stories on the region’s opera, symphony and ballet organizations, plus concert and recital reviews. Once the magazine’s Web site is upgraded to where archived stories are placed online, I’ll post a link to that publication on this page.

Blogging can be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, if one takes seriously the responsibility to write truthfully, accurately and interestingly. Because my entries are more essays than day-to-day observations, I tend to do a lot of research before publishing anything. I suppose my background in history is to blame for that, and my training as a copyeditor prevents me from posting material that has even the remotest chance for grammatical error. Is this a mild case of OCD, perhaps? OK, I’ll cop to that.

While I cannot promise weekly posts, I plan to pretty much continue along the same path I’d blazed at the beginning. My operatic interests remain firmly ensconced in the Italian and French repertoires—notably 19th century works—and I look forward to continuing my analysis of “The 88,” a group of Italian opera composers I’ve identified as important yet mostly forgotten. By paging back through my archives you will find essays on Abramo Basevi, Michele Carafa and Giuseppe Lillo. There are only 85 to go! I also look forward to beginning a discussion of Donizetti’s lesser-known operas, as well as reviewing the occasional production, recital or competition I happen to attend—making sure I don’t step on my publisher’s toes and write something here that steals the thunder from my magazine gig, of course.

At this point I’m not especially motivated to add much in the way of illustration—no photos or YouTube links or MP3 downloads—not because I don’t care to master the technology necessary to post them, but due to the fact that other sites do it so much better. I’m content to write, comment and invite discussion on the performance and character of opera, and to do so with thoughtful analysis and humor.

It feels good to be back, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading what I have to say.


Friday, November 10, 2006

OperaBlogger Takes a Bow

To all my fellow opera lovers worldwide, including those who read this blog with regularity...

Regrettably I must take a hiatus from composing these essays. Other life events have intruded. I hope to be blogging again early in '07 - and, if not, it probably means something sad.

All the best to Dr B, Campbell Vertesi, Maury D'Annatto, and especially La Cieca, for giving me so much to emulate on these pages.

To Gert in the UK, my regular readers in New Zealand, Friuli-Italia, etc., thanks for sticking with me. I wish I could have written more.

Adio, tutti -- Paul Siegel a.k.a. OperaBlogger
...let's hope it's only "ciao."

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Digital Divide and Opera

Over the past several weeks the opera-blogging world has been abuzz with the announcement by newly appointed general manager Peter Gelb that New York’s Metropolitan Opera will increase its music distribution far beyond Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, a staple of the airwaves since 1931. For most of those years these broadcasts were sponsored by Texaco, which bailed out not long after being bought by Chevron. Ever since then, Saturday afternoons at the opera have been financed by a variety of sponsors, the latest of whom—Toll Brothers, the luxury home builder—is currently struggling with some less profitable times.

The Met will expand its public face in threefold fashion by embracing technology that has become second nature to much of the music-consuming public. While a number of details remain to be disclosed, the gist of Gelb’s initiatives includes the following:

Opera lovers are fairly salivating over the prospects of downloading legendary Met performances by some of the world’s greatest singers. A quick scan of opera blogs yields numerous posted wish-lists, with contributors declaring “I can’t wait to hear……when he/she sang……on……Saturday afternoon.” The redesigned Met Web site is a great source for this kind of information, although I haven’t taken the time to dig into it myself.

As with many folks “of a certain age,” those Met Texaco broadcasts were our introduction to the world of opera—especially for people who lived in the hinterlands, far from the Met’s stage where miraculous things were happening thanks to Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters and Anna Moffo, along with so many others. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I would occasionally spend the weekend at my aunt’s apartment, where we’d play cards and listen on my grandma’s old Crosley tabletop radio to that afternoon's opera being broadcast on the local FM classical music station, WCLV.

With all of the technological innovations introduced over the past decade, it’s great to see the Met finally embrace 21st-century concepts. As far as I’m concerned, anything that makes opera accessible to more people is truly a good thing.

Among the bulleted options noted above, the one methodology that holds the greatest fascination for me is the third—Hi-Def video distribution. No matter how delightful it is to hear a great opera performance, it’s even better to both SEE and hear it, so long as the lighting is adequate, the camera work makes sense, and the sound reproduction is equal to or better than the visuals. I’m sure that those of us who own operas on DVD have at least one performance where one or more of those factors leave something to be desired.

For a long time my wife tried to convince me that “Doctor Zhivago” was a great movie. I never saw it when it was first released and had somehow managed to miss out during its subsequent theatrical re-releases. The bits and pieces I’d caught on television—whether on cable or interrupted by commercials during network broadcasts—did not make any particular impression on me. But some years ago our neighborhood movie theater (Denver's Continental, purchased by United Artists) went through a significant remodeling. Rather than tear down the single, giant-screen edifice, the new owners turned it into a multiplex while retaining the massive auditorium. As a result, it’s the last remaining big screen in the state. When a one-week run of “DZ” was announced, we made sure to see it that Saturday night. My wife was right, as she usually is about these things. Seeing “Doctor Zhivago” on the giant screen made me realize just how magnificent a movie it is.

I’m guessing that a similar opportunity might cause movie-theatre goers to say the same thing about “Il Trovatore,” or any other opera that would find its way to the local Cineplex. Sure, there have been operas made into movies—Placido Domingo has participated in several such productions—but “movie-izing” an opera lends to it an unfortunate artificiality. In recent years I’ve watched movie versions of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” It seems that the director’s primary motivation is to broaden the viewer’s perspective, but in a very distracting way. Attending an opera requires some suspension of disbelief, especially concerning the stage setting. [More is required when someone like Joan Sutherland sings the role of 17-year-old Lucia, but that’s an entirely different matter.] When “Otello” opens with a storm-tossed boat on stage, one’s imagination (and a skillful lighting director) helps to create the illusion of the moment. Actually seeing a boat tossed about, rain falling in the singers’ faces while lip-synching to a pre-recorded track, would hardly provide the same thrill.

The Met’s decision to broadcast its programming directly to movie theatres via satellite is an interesting one. Since the late ’90s, the movie distribution industry has been looking for ways to streamline a process that’s remained essentially unchanged since movie houses first opened back in the early years of the 20th century. Every week, giant octagonal metal cases show up at a theatre’s door, while others await removal. Inside are reels and reels of 35mm film, ready to be loaded onto projectors.

Technology Spiel
There are many drawbacks to this manner of distribution. Complete prints of an average-length feature film can run as high as $2000. Multiply that times the number of theatres showing that particular movie (500? 3,000?) and you see how quickly these costs add up. Then there is the problem of the film itself. Early movie stock was printed on a nitrocellulose film base, which was highly flammable. Remember that traumatic scene in “Cinema Paradiso” when the theatre catches on fire? In 1949 Kodak introduced “safety film” printed on cellulose triacetate, and today a polyester-based safety film is in use. But regardless of the medium, every subsequent viewing causes a degradation of the film’s surface. Over time, scratches and dirt make watching movies a far less pleasant experience, creating the need to replace old prints with new ones. There’s another two grand of sunk costs to consider.

A move to digital distribution offers a wide range of benefits, many of which are discussed here in a fascinating albeit self-serving Windows Media white paper on the topic. But expenses aside—based upon prices for the Sony system that debuted in 2005, including projectors, lenses, servers and management software, the estimated cost to outfit a screen could run as high as $140,000—the main concern involves security. After a brief interlude, I’ll pick up this thread a few paragraphs farther down the page.

A Cautionary Tale
In the early days of cable television, subscribers essentially had two programming choices—basic or premium. The padlocked, dome-shaped box in your back yard was equipped with a line filter if you had selected the less expensive option. Upgrading to premium service meant that a service person would come out to your residence, unlock the box, and remove the filter. Back in the early 1980s a friend of mine made a bundle by offering “unauthorized upgrades,” armed as he was with a pair of bolt cutters, some wire-splicing material, and replacement padlocks. The only way the cable company could discover the theft was if they sent someone out on a service call—rarely necessary since the service was pretty bulletproof—who would then realize that the key he/she carried didn’t fit the lock.

All this changed with the development of addressable cable devices. Premium subscribers were given set-top boxes that could deliver specific content directly to them, based upon the device’s unique electronic “address” and whatever services they had ordered. This technology allowed cable viewers to customize their TV packages as well as take advantage of pay-per-view options.

The introduction of small-dish satellite television added yet another viewing dimension. Here in the States there are two competing providers—DirectTV and DISH Network. Both operate with similar technology, where subscribers set 18-inch-diameter receivers on rooftops or balconies, pointed into the sky to capture television signals being beamed across a broad geographic “footprint.” The signals coming off the satellite contain every possible channel—with some systems having so many channels that two dishes and multiple satellites are necessary to receive them all—and a SIM card placed in the consumer’s receiver at the time of installation is coded with the level of programming that’s been purchased.

As with many things technological, scammers are usually right behind the developers, and oftentimes one step ahead. For a while now, black-market SIM cards make it possible to watch all the premium channels while paying only for the basic ones. Many of these cards are pirated copies of masters carried by repair technicians who work directly for the satellite providers. When setting up a new subscriber it’s necessary to test every channel for receptivity, since most systems allow their customers to purchase premium programs on a show-by-show basis. If I choose to watch something special on HBO but that channel is not part of my monthly subscription, I can call (or sometimes e-mail) my provider and ask for digital permission to access it. But if my ability to receive it hadn’t been properly tested, I might be charged for something I can’t view, which can be a customer service nightmare.

Satellite providers develop new versions of SIM cards every few years, shipping them to existing subscribers along with installation instructions. By changing security codes they’re hoping to defeat signal thieves, but it’s only a matter of time before the codes are cracked and new black-market cards are available to those who wish to buy them.

On a related commercial topic, the pirating of newly released feature films has become a huge business, especially in overseas markets (China, for example) where copyright laws are lax, nonexistent or difficult to enforce. The typical way in which the latest blockbuster finds its way onto DVD and thence for sale on the streets of Hong Kong, Tokyo or New York, is by the low-tech method of screen filming. Someone with a digital camera sits in a first-run theatre and shoots the movie right off the screen. Drawbacks are many, including poor-quality reproduction, ambient noise—people chatting in the auditorium, the sound of crunching popcorn, etc.—and the obviousness of some guy watching the movie with a viewfinder glued to his face.

A less common method, but one that offers up a higher-grade product, involves collusion between the film distributor and the pirate. Canisters set for delivery on Friday morning get waylaid on Thursday night, just long enough for the reels to be run through a projector/scanner, stored digitally on a PC, and then burned onto a master DVD for mass duplication. This process is considerably more expensive as the operational hardware and software costs many times more than the average digital movie camera. But selling copies of Tom Cruise’s latest action film for ten bucks apiece, the same week it debuts on the big screen, can make a pirate distributor as much as half a million dollars. That will buy a lot of software upgrades.

Back to Security
If there’s one aspect of digital film distribution that scares the bejeesus out of the movie studios, it involves theft of the transmitted signal. As noted above, lack of security is probably the biggest stumbling block to the widespread showing of digital movies in theatres, far more than the cost of retrofitting the projection booth. Intercepting a signal meant for the Googolplex down the street and using the data to burn your own DVD of the movie—or a thousand copies of it—would create theatre-quality media at pennies on the dollar, with nary a dime of royalties to the studios that produced it.

To better understand this dilemma, picture the way satellites distribute their signals. Launched into geosynchronous orbit hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface, a digital stream of data is transmitted from the movie studio or production house. After bouncing off the satellite’s receptors, data cascades toward the ground in an ever-broadening cone, available to anyone with a collection dish and a receiver equipped with the proper decoding software. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re sitting, just so long as you’re situated somewhere within the data footprint and holding a properly fitted receiver.

Personal Disclaimer
The reason I’m interested in this aspect of the business is due to my past experience in this field. From early 2000 to the beginning of 2003, I was director of business development for a technology start-up that had developed a unique commercial use for the Global Positioning System. Known as CyberLocator Inc.—regrettably defunct due both to lack of funding and a deliverable product salable to actual clients, the kinds of things real businesses need in order to be successful—the concept involved using GPS data to determine whether or not someone could receive specific e-mail or gain access to a GPS-protected Web site. It was developed all the way back in the 1980s by a scientist involved in the original design of the GPS satellite system, and is pretty simple to understand. If you’re in the right place—i.e., the proper pre-registered place—when you try to log on to a secure site, the password you use for access is accepted. If you’re somewhere else, even having the proper credentials does you no good. As we used to say, “Your location is your password.” If you want to know more, drop me a line and I’ll send you a white paper I wrote on the subject.

Tying this into the discussion noted above, GPS encryption/decryption is an ideal security factor for satellite movie distribution. Picture, if you will, the following scenario:

You own a movie theatre located at such-and-such a spot (latitude, longitude, altitude), one which you have already registered with your movie distributor. Mounted on your roof is a small satellite dish that has one additional element to it, a GPS sensor. Every Friday morning, which is when new movies are usually released here in the U.S., your rooftop dish collects the digital transmission of half a dozen new movies (or whatever you’re allotted) along with its public-key encoding, sending everything straight to the projector/server for storage. At this point, what you’ve received is useless because the private key needed to unlock the data has not yet been sent.

A short time later, your theatre server—connected to the Internet as well as to the dish/sensor apparatus above—receives an e-mail query from the distributor’s computer in California. The message back from your location includes encrypted raw data from the GPS sensor, which is then interpreted at the distribution point and matched against your pre-registered location. Do they match? If so, you receive a follow-on e-mail that includes the private key to unlock that week’s digital movies. If not, you get bupkes–nada–zilch.

There are tons of safeguards that prevent location data from being falsified, but there’s no reason to go into that here. Bottom line—this is pretty much the only way to ensure that the satellite transmission of digital movies is safe from being pirated.

By the way, the closest we came to commercializing this service involves the regulation of legal online gambling. Follow this Google search on “Global Cyber Licensing” and you’ll see what I mean.

Back On Topic
Anyway, I’ll be interested to see exactly how these operas end up at my local theatre, assuming that they do. As far as I know, none of the local Denver theatres is equipped with a digital projector system, so maybe we’re S.O.L. I think the closest one might be in Salt Lake City, or perhaps Las Vegas.

But coming soon to a theatre near you (we can only hope) will be more of those one-night-only musical shows that seem to always crop up in the coming attractions. You know the ones I mean—“Whitesnake in Concert” or “A Very Special Evening with the Monsters of Metal.” Only this time it’ll be Bellini’s “I Puritani” or the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “The Last Emperor.”

I can hardly wait!


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Great Performances on PBS—Mozart’s 250th

Earlier this week the U.S. not-for-profit television network PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) aired broadcast TV’s first classical music concert of the season. The series is called “Great Performances,” which shows up several times annually and features well known musicians doing what they do best—singing, dancing or playing an instrument. In between musical selections the stars provide commentary on the pieces they’re about to perform. The programs are pleasingly arranged, offering just enough conversation to punctuate the music without overshadowing it. Earlier in 2006, a 90-minute retrospective featured highlights of the series’ many years on the air, including historical performances by Pablo Casals, Joan Sutherland, Rudolph Nureyev, and others of their ilk.

This particular program was recorded live at the 2006 Salzburg Festival and honored the 250th birthday of W.A. Mozart. It was primarily a showcase of operatic arias—all in Italian, by the way—although the program began with the overture to “Don Giovanni” and ended with the playing of all three movements of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”).

Leading a cut-down, Mozart-sized version of the Vienna Philharmonic was Daniel Harding. The orchestra was comprised of all male players, which seemed strange in this day and age, not to mention a bit off-putting. Perhaps they were aiming for historic authenticity, as I’m sure no woman ever graced the orchestra pit during Mozart’s day.

In addition to the two aforementioned orchestral works, eight arias performed by seven different singers made up the balance of the program. The three big names were (in order of vocal appearance) bass/baritone René Pape, baritone Thomas Hampson and, in the night’s most electrifying performance, soprano Anna Netrebko. More on that farther down the page. The also-rans included tenor Michael Schade, soprano Patricia Petitbon, mezzo Magdalena Kožená, and soprano Ekaterina Siurina.

It was a shame that the only person to sing more than one aria was the tenor. Judging from his selections—“Dalla sua pace” from “Don Giovanni” plus a rarely performed aria from “La Clemenza di Tito”—Schade has an adequate voice. But his presence only served to emphasize the fact that Mozart wrote poorly for the tenor voice. That could be because there were no decent tenors during his days in Salzburg, or perhaps one might credit it to some innate dislike of tenors. It’s even possible that a tenor had once attempted to seduce his wife. Whatever the reason, I don’t believe there’s a single tenor aria in all of Mozart’s œuvre that’s worth a damn—and Schade proved that in spades.

René Pape opened the vocal proceedings with Leporello’s “catalogue” aria from “Don Giovanni.” Pape is an up-and-coming presence on world opera stages—although he’s been around the block a few times, as they say—and his animated, expressive presentation captured perfectly the essence of a character who both despises his master and vicariously revels in the man’s conquests.

Thomas Hampson, on the other hand, appeared from his singular offering to be someone on his way down the ladder. While his voice has not declined nearly as much as that of fellow American Samuel Ramey, Hampson’s rendition of a baritone aria from “Così fan Tutte”—so much more an opera about women’s voices than men’s—was pedestrian, underpowered and dull. A more dynamic choice might have served him better, such as one of the Count’s arias from “Nozze.”

Magdalena Kožená did a fine job with “Parto, ma tu ben mio” from “Clemenza.” This is an oft-heard mezzo staple in vocal competitions; in that setting—performed by a young singer to mere piano accompaniment—it can be almost tedious. But with full orchestra and sung by a professional, it’s a dramatic piece where one can clearly imagine the male soprano voice for which it was originally composed—and I mean that in a good way. Mozart’s pairing of solo clarinet with the vocal line is a brilliant touch, presaging similar effects of soprano and solo violin in Meyerbeer’s “Margherita d’Anjou” and soprano and solo flute in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

French soprano Patricia Petitbon did a decent job with her selection from “Mitridate, re di Ponto.” It’s far from a challenging piece but shows off the soprano voice to good effect. The surprise, however, is the fact that this opera debuted when Mozart was only 14. The music seems far too sophisticated for having been written by a young teenager, no matter how precocious. I guess that just shows the man’s genius.

Ekaterina Siurina sang a soprano aria from “Idomeneo,” an opera seria composed when Mozart was 24. Totally forgettable, both the song and its performance.

The highlight of the evening clearly featured Anna Netrebko. She is the current hot female in the opera world—and not just because she’s got a marvelous voice. She also has immense stage presence, a flair for the dramatic that’s tempered with sensitivity, and a selection of starring roles that would make any soprano drool. Take a look at her 2006-07 schedule:

Manon (title role)—Los Angeles Opera and Vienna State Opera
La Sonnambula (title role)—Vienna State Opera
La Bohème (Mimi) and I Puritani (Elvira)—Metropolitan Opera
Don Giovanni (Donna Anna)—Covent Garden
Concerts with Rolando Villazon (three) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (one)

Closing out the vocal portion of the night’s performance, Netrebko offered “D’oreste, d’Ajace” from the opera “Idomeneo.” The strong ovation she received at the conclusion of her aria was directly appropriate to the fire she exhibited during her all-too-brief appearance on stage. For those of us seeing her for the first time, it was a validation of all the hype she’s received since setting the American opera scene on its ear last year with her appearances as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Looking at the breadth of her repertoire—Mozart, bel canto and Verdi, essentially every important operatic style except verismo—one wonders how long she can keep up this sort of pace.

Judging from the level of energy she displayed on Great Performances, I’m guessing we’re in for a long and delightful run.


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