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Thursday, October 06, 2005

New Feature Alert!

If I did this correctly, I believe comments may now be left directly on the blog, rather than being e-mailed to me at my Yahoo address.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It’s Time for Meyerbeer (Part I)

My reawakening to opera started at the end of 1990, after having been away from it for well over a decade. Up to that point I’d listened to the occasional Met Texaco broadcast and watched a few public television productions, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I owned a grand total of ZERO complete operas on CD.

Remarried to a woman who has been an opera fan nearly her whole life—she grew up in suburban Chicago with parents who were Lyric Opera season ticket holders for decades, and her grandfather heard Caruso sing at the old Lyric—my interest was rekindled. I remember that my reintroduction involved listening to her CD of “Lucia de Lammermoor” (an opera I’d never heard in its entirety), an RCA Italia recording with Anna Moffo and Carlo Bergonzi. From that point onward I was hooked, especially on the bel canto repertoire.

In 2000 I had the good fortune to land a reasonably well-paying job with a high-tech startup, which afforded me the opportunity to start growing my opera collection. Working part-time at Barnes & Noble was also of benefit, since I was entitled to a 20% discount on all music items. I began scouring the B&N catalogue for operas by my favorite composers—Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti and Bellini—and bought as many as I could find.

Stuck deep in the Italian repertoire, I knew almost nothing about French opera. Sure, I was familiar with all the popular pieces from “Carmen” (including the one with the bowdlerized lyrics to the “Toreador Song”) and I’d attended a performance of “Faust” that Opera Colorado put on in the late ’90s. Then, one day while I was perusing the Classical Vocal racks at the bookstore, I stumbled across a Samuel Ramey CD I hadn’t seen before. Titled simply “Operatic Arias,” http://music.barnesandnoble.com/search/product.asp?userid=gT4alLIC5Z&EAN=77774958226&ITM=31 it included a number of Verdi pieces with which I was familiar—bass arias from “Ernani,” “Simon Boccanegra” and “Nabucco”—as well as songs from “Barbiere” and “Don Carlo” that I figured I ought to know. So I bought it and stuck it into my CD player the very next day as I took a walk in the park near my house.

“Encore un de gagne” is the title of cut number seven on that disk, and “Voici donc le debris” is the title of cut number eight. I stopped dead in my tracks as the strains of that first piece began to play. I didn’t move a muscle until both songs were finished. Then I backspaced and played them again, and finally a third time. This was a sound I’d never heard before in opera, and even today I can’t properly describe it. As soon as I got home I stuck the disk into my home CD player and turned up the volume for my wife. “Listen to this,” I said to her. “Isn’t this cool?” Her response was less than enthusiastic; she said something like “Oh, that’s French opera. You know I’m not crazy about it.”

Not one to be put off quite that easily, I was determined to find out more about this composer, about whom I knew absolutely nothing. Giacomo Meyerbeer. What a queer name, I thought. I hunted around on the B&N Web site to see if there was an extant version of “Robert le Diable” available for sale, for that was the work from which Ramey’s two bass arias had been taken. All I could find was a Myto recording of a live 1970s performance sung in Italian. So without knowing anything about the Myto label or the state of this particular recording, I ordered it and awaited its arrival.

Meanwhile I did some more research. My wife’s copy of “Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book,” an older edition, was embarrassingly scant in its detail. Looking at the Stanford University opera Web site, I saw that Meyerbeer had written four so-called grand operas, with “Robert” the first of the bunch. Viewing other source material, I began to piece together a bare outline of this man’s career.

Jakob Liebman Beer, a German Jew born into privilege, combined a relative’s surname (Meyer) with his own in exchange for a living stipend so that he could study music. He migrated to Venice, where he composed a few operas in the style of Rossini, and then went to Paris where he broke new ground for the Paris Opera (Garnier). After taking an inordinate amount of time to compose his four grand operas (from1831 to 1868), he died just before the premiere of “L’Africaine.” Gradually his music fell out of favor, due it was claimed to the popularity of the verismo style. Also cited: Audiences were less willing to sit through five-act operas, and the expense of staging such spectacles was beyond the financial ability of nearly every modern-day opera company.

That was the more-or-less official line on Meyerbeer’s operatic career. Oh, there was some allusion to a dispute with Wagner; rather, commentary by Wagner after Meyerbeer had died regarding the earlier composer’s shallowness of style, or some such drivel. Knowing full well that Wagner was a raving anti-Semite, I put less than zero stock in those words. And after all, I’d heard what he had composed.

My Myto CD arrived, and I rushed to put it on the player. Reading the liner notes as I listened to the dark-toned overture unwind, I learned that this performance of “Roberto il Diavolo” came from a short-lived revival and had suffered through a number of severe cuts by the conductor (Nino Sanzogno), some done as recently as the day before the first performance. Renata Scotto was the lead soprano, while Boris Christoff sang the role that produced the Ramey arias I’d heard.

(Part II to follow …)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Random Thoughts on “Aida”

The first opera I ever saw was “Aida.” It was 1969 and I was a high school senior, plus an active member of the school choir—an organization of 110 singers from one of suburban Cleveland’s BIG high schools. My graduating class was something like 1100 kids. Anyway, the operatic venue was Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, a barn-like building more suited to the Auto Show than to music. My best friend at the time (Mark Hein, a classmate and a tenor—he sang “Vesta la Giuba” at our choir’s spring concert, and did an amazingly good job of it for a 17-year-old) managed to score two tickets “up in the rafters with the birds” for this production, back when the Metropolitan Opera was taking their company on the road after their New York season was over.

I knew almost nothing about the genre. Occasionally I’d spend weekends with my widowed grandmother in the East-Side-of-Cleveland apartment she shared with her daughter, my unmarried aunt and my dad’s oldest sister. Aunt Anne was a classical music fan who spun her 78s for me while we played Old Maid on the kitchen table. She also listened to the Texaco Met broadcasts every Saturday on WCLV, but they formed more of a background for me than an active point of interest. (She also took me to my first-ever classical music concert; when I was around 11 we saw dueling pianists Ferrante & Teicher)

Nonetheless I was glad to have a free ticket, so I went blithely along, not exactly sure what was in store. Our seats were REALLY a long distance from the stage, in a rectangular building with poor acoustics. I had to lean out over the row of seats below me and twist my head to the right in order to see what was going on. Naturally I wasn’t smart enough to have brought binoculars.

If you’re familiar with the opera, you know that it’s Verdi’s most flamboyant. Musically he pulls out all the stops with choruses massing, trumpets blaring and TWO ballets! At the end of Act II, which contains no fewer than three (count ’em, three) endings—two of them false dénouements—I sat there with my mouth agape at the sheer spectacle of it all.

I sure wish I remember the names of the tenor, baritone and mezzo. I suppose I could dig through the Met archives and find them—and perhaps I will one of these days. But I sure recall who sang the title role: Leontyne Price. In ’69 she was at the top of her game, I later learned, and I left the Auditorium that night with memories that remain with me 36 years later.

I’ve seen “Aida” live three times since then. One was in the mid-1990s, an Opera Colorado production that was one of Nathaniel Merrill’s last with the company. I believe that Elizabeth Holleque sang Aida, but I could be wrong. I DO remember the Amonasro, though—Yalun Zhang. If his name’s not familiar to you, more’s the pity. He was the Denver-area Met Competition winner in 1990 or so, and one of Merrill’s local finds. Not only does he have a marvelously rich baritone voice, but he’s also one of the finest actors I’ve ever seen on stage. He sang the title role in “Rigoletto” for Opera Colorado and was brilliant. Do you know the part in “Aida” where Amonasro first makes his appearance? He’s a nondescript member of the slave crowd that’s being paraded in front of Il Re in Act II when he’s recognized by Aida as her father. He cautions her not to let on that he is actually the Nubian king. Well, in this particular production, when Zhang burst out of the crowd and began to sing, his dramatic presence sent a physical signal through the crowd. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

The next time I saw “Aida” was while I was on a business trip to Central Europe. I stayed two nights at the InterContinental in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1997. The opera house was about two miles from my hotel. The best seats in the house cost the equivalent of US$1.97. I have no idea who the singers were (Romanians all), but it was a lot of fun to see what was by then an old favorite in quite an unusual setting—and their Italian wasn’t bad, either. The part that I recall the clearest, though, is again from Act II where the slaves parade in front of the king. Because the ensemble was small, they walked from one side of the stage to the other, ran around backstage, and came through several more times until that particular chorus was ended. By the way, I went to the opera again the next night and saw Mozart’s “Escape from the Seraglio,” sung in Romanian!

My most recent experience with “Aida” live was at the Met about three years ago. My wife and I flew to NYC specifically to see Dwayne Croft in Renee Fleming’s revival of Bellini’s “Il Pirata.” We bought tickets online for both performances—coincidentally the exact same seats for both nights, the last row on the main floor tucked up against the sound booth—which ran us about $100 each. It was pricey but worth every penny.

I believe that the production we saw at the Met was the same Zefferrelli one that I have on DVD, with Placido Domingo as Radames. In the performance we saw, Dolora Zajick was easily the star of the show. Her Amneris was both dramatic and powerful.

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