Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Lucia's last happy snap

Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti at the Met in 1987
LUCIA: Ah! On the breezes
will come my ardent sighs.
You will hear in the murmuring sea
the echo of my grieving
Thinking that I feed on sighs and grief,
shed a bitter tear then on this ring.
Ah, on this ring then!
Ah, on this ring then!
Ah, on that ring then!

Joan Sutherland (s), Lucia; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tullio Serafin, cond. Live performance, Feb. 26, 1959

by Ken

I know we're making microscopic progress toward our goal, that other Verdian musical dramatization of the aging process (besides Germont's aria "Di Provenza" in La Traviata, by way of the "double aria" format Verdi inherited from the Italian bel cantists. And this week we're slowing down even further.

Last week we heard Lucia di Lammermoor's great Scene 2 double aria as she awaited her secret lover, Edgardo, near the fountain on his family's ruined Scottish estate. I thought this week we would move on, or rather back, to the Scene 1 double aria of Lucia's brother, Lord Enrico Ashton and maybe get as far as the way he treats his sister. But even though we left Lucia singing rapturously of her love for Edgardo, a rare moment of unbridled happiness for her, I don't think we can leave her there. We really need to "see" her meeting with Edgardo. Here are four musical snapshots.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: A fountain, a harp, and a mind in distress

No, this isn't the fountain of "The Siren" referred to in the stage direction, but it's a reasonable guess that the Ravenswood fountain might have been based on the Fontana della Sirena in the Piazza Sannazaro in Naples. Just imagine it on a lonely Scottish estate fallen nearly to ruins, like so --
A park in the ground of the Scottish castle of Ravenswood. We see the fountain called "The Siren." Once it was covered by a beautiful structure decorated with all sorts of Gothic details; now only the ruins of this structure remain. It is nightfall.
[All translations in today's post by William Ashbrook]

RAI Turin Symphony Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. Broadcast performance, Oct. 10, 1967

RCA Italiana Orchestra, Georges Prêtre, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July-Aug. 1965

Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Richard Bonynge, cond. Live performance, Nov. 12, 1975

by Ken

Here we hear three takes on a lovely 2½-to-3-minute musical snapshot -- Molinari-Pradelli decisive and sympathetically straightforward; Prêtre similarly decisive but a little more individual in some of his phrasing choices and, surprisingly (at least to me), turning out to time out a little quicker; and Bonynge more romantically discursive.

The music, which is sometimes described as an "interlude" between the scene preceding and the one about to take place, is pretty clearly indicated in the score as an orchestral lead-in to what follows -- though of course it's up to the stage director to decide where exactly to raise the curtain on Scene 2. In the meantime, I'm delaying identifying this piece of musical mood-setting (in the event that you don't know) to give you a chance to just allow it to wash over you and maybe sink in a little, to maybe set a mood. It's clearly the harp that dominates the music, and the fountain that dominates the scene, but I don't think anyone can say how exactly they're expected to relate.

And here I think we can jump ahead just a bit to our next snapshot, to add this vivid response to mention of the aforementioned fountain. In fact, since it's only 11-12 seconds, we're going to hear it three times.
That fountain! Ah! never
do I see it without trembling.

I think we clearly have three interesting, and interestingly, different renderings of this extraordinary moment, but one thing I think we can also say is that, from the purely vocal standpoint, singer B handles it with greater assurance, and singer C handles it with astonishing assurance -- producing a sound of amazing fullness that doesn't strain or curdle at all on the upward leap for the "Ah!" in "Quella fonte! Ah! mai."


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: LIfe among the Druids

The first page of Bellini's Norma autograph score

BELLINI: Norma (1831): Overture

Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Antonino Votto, cond. Live performance, Dec. 7, 1955

Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded Nov. 5-12, 1960

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Felice Cillario, cond. RCA, recorded September 1972

National Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded 1979
About the performances: I really admire the weight that Votto brings to the Overture without stretching or padding it, as Serafin and Cillario do with varying degrees of success. If you want just the notes, Levine's your guy.

by Ken

The plan was different. We've been poking around the 19th-century Italian opera format of the aria-and-cabaletta or "double aria" -- a contrasting pair of arias, usually the first slowish and the second fastish, which with an adjustment of circumstances producing the change allows the singer to show off a wide range of vocal and dramatic capabilities.

We started with Verdi struggling with the format in La Traviata, producing pedestrian or worse cabalettas for the tenor and baritone in Act II, Scene 1, but then last week pointed out that to end Act I he had produced for Violetta what is surely the greatest double aria of them all, her "Ah, fors'è lui" and "Sempre libera."


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Look, it's Violetta!

Joan Sutherland as Violetta in Act I of La Traviata

Act I of La Traviata ends with Violetta's great solo scene

[in English] Valerie Masterson (s), Violetta Valéry; John Brecknock (t), Alfredo Germont; English National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI, recorded Aug.-Oct. 1980

by Ken

Last week I tried to explain that in order to continue with the second example I promised of Verdi depicting a conspicuously aging parent, we really needed to give some attention to the composer's triumphs and tribulations with the "double aria" form carried over from the bel canto period. It's what always used to be known as an "aria and cabaletta" -- the first aria typically situational and often reflecting on that situation; the second aria, in reaction to the first, ususally with some additional circumstances tossed in to alter the situation or the perception of the situation, typically more declarative, often energized for pyrotechnical display.

While Verdi was capable of using the format brilliantly, we have a pile-up of evidence that even as he was making his historicthe "breakthrough" into his middle period with the overlappingly created masterpieces Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, all three operas contain evidence that cabaletta-for-the-sake-of-cabaletta was something that didn't much stimulate his creative juices. By way of demonstration, last week we took as our musical snapshots the celebrated arias for tenor and baritone with regrettable cabalettas tacked on at the start and finish of Act II, Scene 1 of Traviata, the scene in Violetta's country house (where she and Alfredo have been living idyllically), the cabalettas for Germont fils and père, respectively.

I did point out last week, though, that "if we think of the form as 'double aria' rather than 'aria and cabaletta,' then Violetta's "Ah! fors'è lui" plus "Sempre libera" at the end of Act I of Traviata may be the supreme example of the format." And having dropped that loaded statement in, even though we did listen to this great solo scene, which so starkly rounds out an act that began with perhaps opera's most rousing party scene in February 2011, we can hardly escape "snapshotting" it now.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Verdi at peak power soars and slumps

Thomas Hampson as Germont at Covent Garden, 2009
GERMONT: No, you won't hear reproaches from me;
let's bury the past in forgetfulness.
The love that guided me
can pardon everything.
Come, see your loved ones
in joy with me again;
do not deny this joy
to one who has suffered long.
A father and a sister --
make haste to console them.
No, you won't hear reproaches from me, etc.
ALFREDO: A thousand serpents devour my breast!
GERMONT: Are you listening to me?
GERMONT: A father and a sister --
make haste to console them.
No, you won't hear reproaches from me, etc.
ALFREDO [arising and suddenly finding Flora's letter on the table]: Ah!
She's at the ball!
I must fly to avenge the offense.
[He rushes out.]

Thomas Hampson (b), Giorgio Germont; Rolando Villazon (t), Alfredo Germont; Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Rizzi, cond. DG, recorded live, August 2005

by Ken

About a month ago I started what was intended to be the first part of a two-part series with a post called "The sound of aging, Verdi-style (1)," in which I suggested that the whole structure of "Di Provenza il mar, il suol," the elder Germont's celebrated aria in La Traviata, is built on fatigue -- or rather this father's struggle to overcome his fatigue in his enormous effort to not only console his boy but to lure him back to the comfort and wholesomeness of his native Provence. My suggestion was that Germont is not only fighting his fatigue but milking it, showing it off to Alfredo as he throws everything he can at the shell-shocked young man.

Our other example of "aging, Verdi-style," tidily enough, will involve a mother's exhaustion, an exhaustion that sounds to me not just physical but spiritual -- as if she's just barely on this side of. I admit that it's a case so extreme, and one that exerts such dreadful force on me, that I'm probably stalling a little. Nevertheless, I really would like to get to it, and regret that before we can get there, we have some gaps to plug, in part because we left a dangling end in our consideration of "Di Provenza": its usually missing cabaletta, which is hardly more welcome when it isn't omitted. And then, once we get into the baritone's cabaletta, how can we not broach the subject of the tenor's, an even feebler piece?

The "aria and cabaletta," which recent usage seems to prefer to call a "double aria," is a carry-over from the bel canto era, when it was common to arrange dramatic situations in which a character might sing an aria typically of moderate pace and temperament followed -- with some tweaking of the circumstances -- by a more excited second aria, or cabaletta, which by happy chance for the performer tends to lend itself to the character of a showpiece.


Monday, May 18, 2015

"Mad Men" Watch: A wistful but fond farewell to all our friends -- and what it was like watching the finale as part of an audience

What's this? Peggy and Stan? This kiss from 2013
wasn't serious, but last night was a different story.

by Ken

Although it was past 12:30 this morning by the time I got home from my real-time big-screen viewing of the Mad Men finale at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, I still did what I suspected I was going to do: watch the whole episode again via DVR. Partly to see the whole episode again, partly to pick up lines I'd missed at the screening, and partly to see how differently the thing played in my living room, as opposed to that theaterful of buoyant Mad Men fans.

The answer to that last question is that it played very differently indeed. There were probably a hundred moments large and small where the audience's involvement changed the way we as a group experienced unfolding events.

Take that wonderful scene when Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), about to begin his new life with his big-time new job and his reunited family, arrives to pick up Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in her office for their lunch, and are eventually joined by the third member of their party, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who professes to be mortally wounded by the news that Peggy can't make lunch but clearly is more concerned but getting to lunch and is only mollified when Pete offers him the tin of cookies baked by Sarah (do I remember who Sarah is? not really), his only remaining farewell swag after he's fobbed the baby cactus off on Peggy on the ground that "I have a five-year-old" -- as one once again does. (Yes!) And Harry, as he leaves Peggy's office, immediately opens the tin to take a cookie. At home this was an amusing moment; at the museum it had gotten a major audience-wide laugh.

Or there was the moment after the McCann-Erickson traffic meeting when our Peggy surprised the heck out of everyone by standing up to that Lorraine bitch (Francesca Ferrara) and demanding to know why the Chevalier account had been taken away from her and Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), her long-time artist colleague. Stan cringed; the audience cheered. Peggy pursued her case; the bitch Lorraine caved; and the audience went wild! And so it went all through the episode. Can you imagine the way the audience took in the phone call between Stan and Peggy as it took its unexpected turn? I expect I'll be rewatching the episode a number of times in the years to come, and when I do, the experience I expect to recall is the viewing-with-audience.


It doesn't seem likely that we'll stop talking anytime soon about the fraught and enigmatic wind-up David Chase and Co. crafted for The Sopranos. And when Vince Gilligan and his team brought Breaking Bad to a close, there was still so much mess to be brought to a climax and then sorted out that a thrill-a-minute finale was all but mandated.

By those standards I don't think last night's Mad Men finale is going to be remembered as an event for the ages. It's worth remembering that series creator-mastermind Matthew Weiner was at the table for the end of The Sopranos finale, and has certainly had ample opportunity to contemplate that path, and it's not the one he chose.

It's not that Matt doesn't know how to stage a spectacular farewell. Consider the mind-blowing song and dance he conjured to say sayonara to Bert Cooper (and Bobby Morse) in "the first half of Season 7." But the show's grand finale he seems to have chosen instead to take care of business, and I'd be surprised it there are Mad Men fans who are unhappy with the way the show reached its conclusion.

For one thing, having dropped the bombshell of Betty Francis's impending demise in the next-to-last episode, he had no disasters lurking up his creative sleeve. Oh, there was certainly disappointment for Joan in the unwillingness of her splendid swain Richard (Bruce Greenwood) to stand by while she launches her business. Joan may have imagined that she could handle both the relationship and the new business, but I think Richard was being utterly reasonable in insisting that she couldn't, that not only would the business seriously diminish her availability for the new life he was imagining for them, but that at every turn, anytime the business needed her attention, it would take precedence. As Richard knew only too well, how else do you get a new business going?

Besides, did viewers imagine that the writers could create a man we would believe could really be worthy of Joan? I still count her "fate" a solid win, for the wonderful way her new business venture animated her? Especially as a pushback to the appalling treatment she had received at McCann-Erickson, which was not only so personally abusive but such a monstrous waste of her limitless capabilities, which after all even Sterling Cooper had made such modest use of. It's horrible to think of Joan never enjoying the relationship she deserves, but Joan having a shot at achieving personal fulfillment -- that counts for something.

And it counts for something even if she's not going to have Peggy as a partner. Which is probably the right choice for Peggy, who needs to fight her way through to what she can accomplish at McCann-Erickson in order to rise to the heights both Pete and Stan insist on predicting for her -- predictions she herself is scarcely able to hear. But that doesn't stop Joan. As we hear when her new employee answers the phone, Joan even fulfills her perceived need to have two names for her company, to make it sound more solid -- even if both names in Holloway Harris happen to be her own!

There's so much I could talk about, but the best way I can pay tribute to Matthew Weiner's stewardship of this remarkable set of characters he and his team created is by looking a little more at those two great scenes between Peggy and Stan -- first the one in her office which ends so disastrously, and then the one on the phone which ends so well. I thought it was fantastic the way Stan on the phone was able to explain to Peggy be who he wants to be in talking to her in person and how different it is when he then talks to her on the phone, and finds himself talking to the person he'd hoped to be talking to to begin with.

Which sent me, at least, thinking back to all those phone conversations the two of them shared, not just when they were working together but while Peggy had left Sterling Cooper. Aren't these the only times we've seen Peggy truly at ease with herself and with someone she's talking to, relaxed and engaged and funny and silly. Then when Peggy finally recovers from her astonishment over Stan's audacious declaration that he likes her (I imagine that the length of those pauses before each time she said "What?" were the subject of considerable discussion in the editing room), she tells him -- and this too rings totally true for viewers -- that those phone calls were always precious to her because he was always right.

As much as we're accustomed to thinking of phone relationships as limited and in important ways artificial by comparison with real interpersonal contacts, we get to see that for Peggy and Stan the opposite has been true: Their "real" relationship has been in the phone calls. And at that moment during this phone conversation when Stan burst into Peggy's office and did, you know, what he did, and as you can imagine the audience at the museum went into sheer pandemonium, that was also the truth of the moment. I'm sorry you couldn't have been there.

Still, I'm sure that all audience-deprived home viewers got the basic message: that over this past decade Matthew W and his people have given us this wonderful bunch of characters and then treated them with fantastic imagination, yes, but also with scrupulous respect. Thanks, guys.


Amid last night's festivities, MoMI Chief Curator David Schwartz delivered a welcome piece of news: that the amazing Mad Men exhibition the museum put on, which was scheduled to run through June, has by popular demand been extended through Labor Day. I'm grateful for the opportunity for all those additional re-viewings I hope to get in over the summer, because the material is so broad and deep that it really requires a kind of attention that's hard to muster in just a few viewings.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Aren't the jolly boys and girls of "The Gondoliers" really somebodies after all?

"The Piazzetta in Venice, Looking East with the Doge's Palace, the Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, the Riva degli Schiavoni and the Bacino di San Marco," oil painting by Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780)

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Gondoliers: Act I, Francesco, Good morrow, pretty maids . . . Antonio, For the merriest fellows are we
During the previous chorus, in which the CONTADINE (peasant girls) have been discovered in the Piazzetta in Venice arranging floral bouquets, ANTONIO, FRANCESCO, GIORGIO, and other GONDOLIERS have entered unobserved by the girls -- at first two, then two more, then half a dozen, then the remainder.

FRANCESCO: Good morrow, pretty maids. For whom prepare ye
these floral tributes extraordinary?
FIAMETTA: For Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri,
the pink and flower of all the gondolieri.
GIULIA: They're coming here, as we have heard but lately,
to choose two brides from us who sit sedately.
ANTONIO: Do all you maidens love them?
CONTADINE: Passionately!
ANTONIO: These gondoliers are to be envied greatly.
GIORGIO: But what of us, who one and all adore you?
Have pity on our passion, we implore you!
FIAMETTA: These gentlemen must make their choice before you.
VITTORIA: In the meantime we tacitly ignore you.
GIULIA: When they have chosen two, that leaves you plenty.
Two dozen we, and ye are four and twenty!
FIAMETTA and VITTORIA : Till then, enjoy your dolce far niente!
ANTONIO : With pleasure, nobody contradicente!
Song, Antonio and Contadine
ANTONIO : For the merriest fellows are we, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : That ply on the emerald sea, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : With loving and laughing
and quipping and quaffing,
we're happy as happy can be, tra la.
With loving and laughing
and quipping and quaffing,
we're happy as happy can be, tra la.
ALL: Tra la-la-la-la, etc.
ANTONIO : With sorrow we've nothing to do, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : And care is a thing we pooh-pooh, tra la.
CONTADINE: Tra la, tra la, tra la, tra la-la-la, tra-la-la-la la.
ANTONIO : And jealousy yellow,
unfortunate fellow,
we drown in the shimmering blue, tra la.
And jealousy yellow,
unfortunate fellow,
we drown in the shimmering blue, tra la.
ALL: Tra la-la-la-la-la-la-la, etc.

Alexander Young (t), Francesco; Stella Hitchens (s), Fiametta; Helen Watts (c), Giulia; James Milligan (bs-b), Antonio; James Milligan (bs-b), Giorgio; Lavinia Renton (s), Vittoria; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Mar. 11-15, 1957

Dawn Bradshaw (s), Fiametta; Joseph Riordan (t), Francesco; Daphne Gill (ms), Giulia; Michael Wakeham (b), Antonio; George Cook (b), Giorgio; Ceinwen Jones (s), Vittoria; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded September 1960

Enid Walsh (s), Fiametta; Thomas Hancock (t), Francesco; Joyce Wright (ms), Giulia; Geoffrey Sanders (b), Antonio; Radley Flynn (bs), Giorgio; Yvonne Dean (ms), Vittoria; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, New Promenade Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded Mar. 11, 1950

by Ken

This week's late-scheduled musical snapshot is kind of blurry, I'm afraid, but seems important nevertheless. I expected to be proceeding, finally, with Part 2 of the "Sound of Aging, Verdi-style" miniseries I began a few weeks ago with Giorgio Germont's calculatedly fatigue-ridden appeal to his wayward son Alfredo to abandon wicked Paris and come home to beautiful, sunny, wholesome Provence -- in the form of the celebrated baritone aria "Di Provenza il mar, il suol." But Friday night I attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers which went beyond good-or-bad (there were good things and there were bad things) to show me something about the piece I've never heard before, and that's always exciting.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: "Papa" Monteux, "Petrushka," and fiddlers four

Monteux conducted Saint-Saëns (!) in the Schumann Concerto
[from the 80th-birthday interview with Edward Kelly included in the set]

How Monteux came to conduct the premiere of Stravinsky's
Petrushka (and later, of course, The Rite of Spring)

Monteux conducts the opening of Petrushka

As we know, he conducted the ballet's premiere with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1911. This excerpt is from the recording he made with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for RCA, Jan. 25-28, 1959.

by Ken

If we had an actual snapshot to accompany today's musical ones, it would be of me arriving at my desk to find a package of a size that didn't immediately suggest anything I'd ordered. This is the plus side of dissipating memory: the occasional surprise "gift." (In fairness of a sort to me, the two things I could recall having ordered both had special circumstances -- meaning complications -- attached.)

I had to rip the package open to find, as you've probably guessed by now, the Sony set of Pierre Monteux: The Complete RCA Album Collection, which is to say all the recordings he made for RCA. (There's a fellow online who refuses to grasp, no matter how many times it's explained to him, that this is not the same thing as "all the recordings of his that were issued on RCA" (and thus it excludes those made during the label's affiliations with EMI and then Decca, which after all don't belong to it), and keeps insisting that he was somehow cheated. I have suggestions of what he might do, but I'll be good and keep them to myself.

I ordered this set, even though I already had a lot of the material on CD -- there's the rest that I didn't have, and some that I did that I hoped might sound better. And more than anything, this is Monteux, and longtime readers will have some idea how much that means to me. This is a musician with as deeply resonant and finely tuned musical sensibilities as any conductor I'm familiar with.

When I came to musical consciousness, Monteux (1875-1964) was still very much among us, and still -- into his 80s -- amazingly active. So perhaps it's understandable that for me he is permanently "Papa" Monteux. The new set reminds me, however, that his air of seniority goes back a ways. When he made his first RCA recordings, in San Francisco in April 1941 (weirdly, by telephone line to RCA's recording studio in Los Angeles), he was already 66! And though Sony bills the first 10 of these 39 music CDs, devoted to the pre-LP recordings (there's also a "bonus" CD with a 29-minute 80th-birthday interview), "The Early Recordings," these are of course only Monteux's early RCA recordings; he had been recording in Europe for decades.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: "My day in the hills has come to an end, I know"

My day in the hills
has come to an end, I know.
A star has come out
to tell me it's time to go.
But deep in the dark green shadows
are voices that urge me to stay.
So I pause and I wait and I listen
for one more sound,
for one more lovely thing
that the hills might say.

by Ken

You know what today's musical snapshot is, I'm sure. Or just possibly maybe not. It wasn't till yesterday that I discovered that people all over the world who are intimately familiar with the source may never have heard these beautiful lines.

Need a hint? Here's another haunting musical setup, one that we've already heard (back in January 2011), that's kin to the above. (In my head I frequently get their respective musical destinations mooshed up.)

When I think of Tom, I think about a night
when the earth smelled of summer
and the sky was streaked with white,
and the soft mist of England was sleeping on a hill.
I remember this, and I always will.

There are new lovers now on the same silent hill,
looking on the same blue sea.
And I know Tom and I are a part of them all --
and they're all a part of Tom and me. . . .

Valerie Masterson, vocal; National Symphony Orchestra, John Owen Edwards, cond. Jay, recorded July 1994


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: The sound of aging, Verdi-style (1)

An aging Renato Bruson sings "Di Provenza" (to a here unseen Alfredo) at Ravenna in 1991.
[Some noise is heard outside.]
ALFREDO: There's someone the garden. [About to go out] Who's there?
[A MESSENGER appears at the door.]
MESSENGER: You're Monsieur Germont?
ALFREDO: I am, yes.
MESSENGER: Here's a note from a lady for you. I said I'd bring it. Her coach drove off for Paris.
[He gives ALFREDO a letter and leaves.]
ALFREDO: From Violetta! But why am I so nervous?
Does she want me to join her in Paris?
I'm trembling! O God! Have courage!
[He tears the letter open and reads aloud.]
"Alfredo, as soon as you have read this letter --"
[Turning, he finds himself face to face with his father. ALFREDO falls into his arms.]
Father, father!
GERMONT: Alfredo! I know you're suffering!
Come, no more sorrow!
Return and cheer your father, beloved Alfredo!
[ALFREDO, in despair, sits down and buries his face in his hands.]
GERMONT: In Provence, your native land,
we still long for your return.
We still long for your return.
in Provence, your native land.
Oh, how happy you once were --
not a trace of grief or pain!
Not a trace of grief or pain --
oh, how happy you once were!
For you know that only there
peace will shine on you again.
For you know that only there
peace will shine on you again.
God hear my prayer! God hear my prayer! God hear my prayer!

How we missed you, dearest boy,
you will never, never know!
You will never, never know
how we missed you, dearest boy!
How we hung our heads in shame
when you left without a word.
When you left without a word,
how we hung our heads in shame!
But I've found you once again,
and I will not let you go
If your honor still can claim
to instruct you what do do!
Now I've seen you once again,
I will never let you go!
God led me here! God led me here!
God led me here! God led me here!
-- singing translation by Edmund Tracey
(used in the ENO recording)

[in English] John Brecknock (t), Alfredo Germont; John Kitchiner (b), Messenger; Christian du Plessis (b), Giorgio Germont; English National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded Aug.-Oct. 1980

[from "My son"] Riccardo Stracciari (b); piano. Fonotipia, recorded 1906

by Ken

In the booklet for RCA's 1960 recording of Verdi's La Traviata with Anna Moffo, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, then Met Assistant Manager and prized raconteur Francis Robinson tells this story about a celebrated Merrill Germont from 11 years earlier:
The elder Germont is the first role Robert Merrill undertook at the Metropolitan. His performance is recorded as having been "polished and powerful" but he was soon to face an ordeal more grueling than a Metropolitan debut. He was chosen by Arturo Toscanini for the historic broadcasts of La Traviata, a performance happily still available on RCA Victor records.

At one of the early rehearsals the Maestro fixed Merrill with a scathing eys.

"Have you ever been a father?" he demanded.

"No, Maestro," Merrill stammered.

"It sounds it," the old man said.

When Merrill did become a father the first telegram went to Toscanini, but before the Maestro had finished with him he was singing Germont with the compassion of a distressed parent.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Glinka's "Russlan" Overture packs a way more pungent wallop than you'd guess from "Mom"

"The Father of Russian Music": Mikhail Glinka (1804-1867)

GLINKA: Ruslan and Ludmila: Overture

Kirov Orchestra (St. Petersburg), Valery Gergiev, cond. Philips, recorded February 1995

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Oct. 14, 1963

Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Alessandro Siciliani, cond. CSO Showcase, recorded February 2001

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Mar. 14, 1959

by Ken

As I've mentioned occasionally in my occasional TV Watch reports, I occasionally try to watch Mom. And each a time I get a jolt when I hear the rousing strains of Glinka's Rusland and Ludmila Overture -- at least the couple of bars' worth that are all we get, for cheap 'n' cheesy effect. Whereas the piece itself is one of the glories of musical civilization, uniquely rousing but also soaring.

This week I got farther than usual into the episode, with that fine actress Allison Janney (who plays, you know, Mom) finally getting an opportunity to do something other than make herself look foolish, with the current plotline that has her sinking toward rock bottom in her pills and booze abuse. (Whether she has actually hit rock bottom remains to be seen. Or whether she in fact has a rock bottom.)

It happens too that the Ruslan Overture is one of the pieces I thought of when I was thinking recently about music that, as best I recall, we've never heard in Sunday Classics asI plan for the shutdown. So let's consider today's snapshot a gap-plugger -- and a perennial delight.

The opera it introduces is a delight too, but such a genre-bending farrago of story-telling modes -- fairy tale, heroic epic, romance -- that it makes almost impossible demands on the resources, not least of the imaginative kind, of an opera company.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: "Is life a boon?"

Longtime D'Oyly Carte Opera Company principal tenor Thomas Round was not only long gone from the company but, unfortunately, in his late 50s by the time he made the recordings below.
Is life a boon?
If so, it must be befall
that Death, whene'er he call
must call too soon.
Though fourscore year he give,
yet one would wish to live
another moon!
What kind of plaint have I,
who perish in July?
who perish in July?
I might have had to die
perchance in June!
I might have had to die
perchance in June!

Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit!
Man is well done with it
soon as he's born.
He should all means essay
to put the plague away,
to put the plague away;
and I, war-worn,
poor captured fugitive,
my life most gladly give.
I might have had to live
another morn!
I might have had to live
another morn!
Revised (standard) version

Thomas Round (t), Col. Fairfax; Gilbert and Sullivan Festival Orchestra, Peter Murray, cond. G and S for All, recorded 1972
Original version

Thomas Round (t), Col. Fairfax; Gilbert and Sullivan Festival Orchestra, Peter Murray, cond. Pearl, recorded in Battersea Town Hall (London), Sept. 12, 1972

by Ken

We'll come back to "Is life a boon?," the song that blossomed from tedium to magnificence when the composer was nudged by his wordsmith partner to start over. But first, let me explain as quickly as possible that it and our other musical snapshot today arise from two convergences:

• While I was waiting for the Museum of the Moving Image screening of Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann's 1957 film The Bachelor Party (an adaptation of their 1953 live-TV version), part of the Matthew Weiner-curated series of films that impacted him in the making of Mad Men, I forced myself to finally finish Ben McGrath's April 13 New Yorker piece on fantasy sports, from which I learned that fantasy sports has pretty well eliminated any connection to the play of sports even as it has exploded all over the place and apparently provided the only reason to live for a lot of people who therefore may be thought to have no reason to live. This was a dangerous convergence because The Bachelor Party depicts a night in the life of five humdrum office mates, where four of them take the fifth out for a bachelor party that unswittingly slipslides into a crossroads that none of them is well-equipped to cope with, at least not without throwing open the question of what meaning or purpose, if any, their lives have.

• And the musical snapshots by that convergence further converged with one of last week's musical snapshots: the tenor's "Ingemisco" from the awesome "Dies irae" of the Verdi Requiem. For me personally, the other peak of Verdi's "Dies irae," the mezzo-soprano's "Liber scriptus proferetur" -- we heard the two together in the April 2011 Sunday Classics post "Verdi blows the lid off the whole Krap Kristian hypocrisy."

So I thought we would just listen again to the three complete performances of the "Liber scriptus" we heard back then -- sung, as I wrote then, by two suitably deep-voiced mezzos (Jard van Nes and Florence Quivar) and a genuine contralto (Lili Chookasian)."(We also heard Ebe Stignani's recording broken into segments.)

VERDI: Requiem: ii. "Dies irae": mezzo-soprano solo, "Liber scriptus proferetur" ("A written book shall be brought forth")
A written book shall be brought forth
in which all is recorded,
whence the world shall be judged.

Therefore, when the Judge shall be seated
nothing shall be held hidden any longer,
no wrong shall remain unpunished.

Jard van Nes (ms); Munich Bach Choir, Frankfurt Singing Academy, Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hanns-Martin Schneidt, cond. Arte Nova, recorded Oct. 30, 1988

Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano; Ernst-Senff Chorus, Berlin Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded April 1989

Lili Chookasian, contralto; Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Oct. 5-6 1964, Apr. 5, 1965


We're going to be coming back to them.


A song of the splendor of (the second) "Is life a boon?" deserves a comparably magnificent performance, and unfortunately I don't have one of those to offer. Still the closest to me is Leonard Osborn's, which for all the familiar problems of his singing is the performance the not only has plenty of real vocal ring but a goodly helping of dramatic importance. Although as I've said I'm not a great fan of onetime D'Oyly Carte Opera Company principal tenor Derek Oldham, I kind of like both of his recordings, though I'm still bothered by the fake-classy verbal frilliness -- much better controlled, it seems to me, in the 1928 version. I suppose Richard Lewis's recording represents something of a compromise between the two, though you certainly can't say it's beautifully sung.

Which is why I've included the remaining two versions, which are both quite prettily sung but don't seem to me to carry any vocal or emotional weight, and pretty much miss the point of the piece.

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Yeomen of the Guard: Act I, Ballad, Col. Fairfax, "Is life a boon?"
Is life a boon?
If so, it must be befall
that Death, whene'er he call
must call too soon.
Though fourscore year he give,
yet one would wish to live
another moon!
What kind of plaint have I,
who perish in July?
who perish in July?
I might have had to die
perchance in June!
I might have had to die
perchance in June!

Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit!
Man is well done with it
soon as he's born.
He should all means essay
to put the plague away,
to put the plague away;
and I, war-worn,
poor captured fugitive,
my life most gladly give.
I might have had to live
another morn!
I might have had to live
another morn!

Leonard Osborn (t), Col. Fairfax; New Promenade Orchestra, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded July 18, 1950

Richard Lewis (t), Col. Fairfax; Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 10-14, 1957

Derek Oldham (t), Col. Fairfax; D'Oyly Carte Opera Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 29-Dec. 4, 1928 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Derek Oldham (t), Col. Fairfax; orchestra, George Byng, cond. EMI, recorded Mar.-Oct. 1920 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Philip Potter (t), Col. Fairfax; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. Decca, recorded Apr. 5-11, 1964

Kurt Streit (t), Col. Fairfax; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond. Philips, recorded May 1992