Recording of the Week: Four Last Songs

June 17, 2010

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs are not only a personal valedictory, but they are the end of more than a century of glorious German art songs; they are the farewell to the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and finally Strauss himself. These hibernal songs written shortly before the composer’s death, and not performed until after it, have been recorded by almost every soprano of note over the past 60 years. The earlier Strauss, he of the whale sized orchestra and bombast amid beauty, had long been tamed by time. What remained was a gentle old age devoid of anger covered by resignation and acceptance.

The standard by which all interpreters of these works is judged was set by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Here is her recording of the third of the songs – Beim Schlafengehen. All four of them can be downloaded here for only one euro which at today’s exchange rate is less than $1.25. Schwarzkopf’s sensitivity and phrasing reveal every nuance of these beautiful songs. Her almost fragile tone captures the beautiful poignance that Strauss’ final effort suffused these songs. Note the wonderful reading of the text of the third and final stanza.

Beim Schlafengehen
(“Going to sleep”) (Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd’ gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

Renée Fleming easily equals Schwarzkopf in her interpretation of these songs. And she brings to them a more lustrous instrument. She takes the song much slower than Schwarzkopf – her version is a minute and forty seconds longer. Her voice is so perfectly controlled that this greater duration is not readily noticed as the beauty of the song and her voice seems enhanced by this rendition. Here is Fleming’s singing the last stanza of Beim Schlafengehen.

Fleming is so good with Strauss that I wonder what drives her to the bel canto repertory where she’s good enough, but does not reach the level she attains with Strauss. This recording contains five additional Strauss songs which are all gorgeously rendered. Particularly noteworthy is Wiegenlied.  The disc concludes with Der Rosenkavalier  Suite conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

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Armida Not Live in HD

May 20, 2010

Tiepolo: Rinaldo and Armida in the Garden

I was out of the country when Rossini’s rarity Armida was telecast live from the Met May 1. Accordingly, I went to the repeat broadcast. Never before performed at the Met Rossini wrote the piece in 1817 for Naples’ San Carlo as a vehicle for his future wife Isabella Colbran. Renée Fleming was the reason for its appearance in New York. While anything by Rossini is of interest to any opera lover, Armida is Rossini a notch or two below his best.

The story is pretty weak even by the standards of early 19th century Italian opera. The sorceress Armida loves the warrior Rinaldo. He runs away with her to her magic island. They have a good time together. Two of Rinaldo’s colleagues find there way to the Island. They shame him into returning to his duties as as a soldier. Armida vows vengeance and the opera end. This takes about three hours, more than four with the Met’s gargantuan intermissions. The story was based on Torquato Tasso’s then well known poem Gerusalemme Liberata.

While typical of its period Armida is also a bit  ahead of it. It’s through written with the recitatives and numbers skillfully linked so that the transitions are almost unnoticed. But vocal pyrotechnics are the only reason for producing it. Ms Fleming’s voice is still a beautiful instrument, but as she declared during the first intermission it’s best suited for Mozart and Strauss. She doesn’t have the coloratura skills of Joan Sutherland or the vocal thrust and bite of Maria Callas which is needed for Armida’s intense vocal outbursts. The best singing and the loveliest music of the performance were the duets for Armida and Rinaldo.

Fleming’s lack of fire was particularly noticeable in the opera’s conclusion when Armida chooses vengeance over love. If you want to hear how this should be sung listen to Callas’s performance recorded live in Florence in 1952. The sound’s not good, but you can still hear how the part should be sung.

The opera is famous for its six tenor parts. The Met had five. Barry Banks sang both Gernando in the first act and Carlo in the third. Bruce Ford had been engaged to sing Goffredo, who appears only in the first act, but he was a no show and Charles Osborn sang the part. What the original tenor lineup was is not known to me. Kobie van Rensburg was Ubaldo, and Yeghishe Manucharyan was Eustazio.

The lead tenor part, Rinaldo, was sung by Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee has an airy voice that is produced virtually entirely from the throat. Though he managed the difficult part well enough and had the high notes it demands, his voice is not particularly attractive. There’s a shift of gears as he goes from mid range to high.

Charles Osborn’s voice has coarsened since I last heard him several years ago. His top is no longer as free and easy as it was. Barry Banks has a solid voice and technique though subtly is not part of his singing. Rensburg has a frail voice in contrast to his tall stature. he was the only tenor clearly taller than Ms Fleming. Mr Manucharyan didn’t have a lot to do. Bass Keith Miller showed that it was possible to sing while walking on the backs of furies.

This production was Mary Zimmerman’s third shot at bel canto. While it wasn’t as embarrassing as her two earlier productions it still didn’t hit the mark. Just because the story is a fable doesn’t mean you have to give it a camp staging. It seems clear that she doesn’t have a feel for opera.

The furies (devils with horns and tails) that were wriggling around the stage at the beginning of the second act were pretty silly. This was followed by a long ballet that featured devils in drag, they wore tutus. The ballerinas placed fruit on their heads. I was immediately transported back to my youth and visions of Carmen Miranda.  The ballet, though well performed, hardly seemed appropriate for an erotic liaison in a pleasure palace. Then there were the fiery dragons specified in the libretto – there weren’t any. Armida may have chosen vengeance, but she struck a pose rather than destroying her pleasure palace. And there were the signs telling us what was happening. Ms Zimmerman used the device to general disdain in La Sonnambula. It wasn’t any better here.

Gary Halvorson’s closeups weren’t kind to Armida’s nymphs. What were all those chubby middle aged women doing in a pleasure palace? But they sang well enough. Riccardo Frizza managed to keep things moving sufficient to abort slumber. Richard Hudson’s sets and costumes were bright and cheery in keeping with the general lack of seriousness that characterized this staging.

Armida deserves an occasional production, but only when the right soprano (or mezzo-soprano) is available. Ms Fleming is a fine artist, but this role is not the best showcase for her talent.

Glück, Das Mir Verblieb

March 18, 2009
Erich Korngold

Erich Korngold

Erich Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt (first performed in 1920) is best known for its aria “Glück, das mir verblieb” also known as “Marietta’s Lied”. Less well known is the tenor version of the same tune which closes the opera. The first line is the same but thereafter the tenor (Paul) sings different words to the same melody. Read the rest of this entry »

Opera in the Original Language

March 10, 2009

Last night the Met performed Dvořák’s opera Rusalka for the first time since 2004. The opera was performed in its original Czech. Most operas in the standard repertoire are in Italian, German, or French. Accordingly, most opera singers are reasonably comfortable in those languages. But how about Czech? This production has only one Czech performer in it and he doesn’t make a sound.

In the early 90s I recorded a performance of one of Janácek’s operas from the Met. I played the recording for a friend of mine who is a native of Prague. I asked her how the Czech was – only two of the singers were Czech. She said she couldn’t understand a single word sung by the non-Czechs. I was astounded.

“You really couldn’t understand any of it?”

“Yes.” She was adamant.

Why do an opera in a language that none of the performers can manage very well in front of an audience that doesn’t understand a word of what’s coming at them even if were intelligible? Well comprehension is obviously out. The argument usually offered is that the composer had the original language in mind as he wrote the notes and that the original language fits better than any translation. But is that argument any good when what’s being sung resembles no spoken human language as is usually the case when non-Czech speakers sing that language?

What seems to emerge when an opera is performed in a language that’s unfamiliar to the singers is opera as vocalise. The Met might just as well do Dvořák or Janácek as solfeggio. Jirí Belohlávek conducted last night’s Rusalka. Obviously he could tell the quality of the diction coming at him. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know how good Renee Fleming’s Czech is but I’d guess that its similar to that of almost any other American singer. The only reason I can think of to perform Czech opera in the original is to save the expense of buying an English translation. Everything said about Czech opera applies equally to Russian opera sung by non-Slavs.

If you’ve listened to opera in English you understand why a “translation” is still offered to the audience. Only a few singers can be understood even when they are singing their own language. Richard Strauss’ last opera – Capriccio – is about the primacy of word or music in opera. I don’t know why he bothered. In most operas there are no words – just sounds.

I think the best reason for doing an opera in a language not understood by the audience is to relieve them of the effort of trying to comprehend the words.

The Met’s Thaïs in HD

December 21, 2008
Renée Fleming

Renée Fleming

Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs was premiered in 1894. Since then it has been a little beyond the frontier of the standard operatic repertoire. It’s periodically revived for star sopranos. The Met’s current production is a vehicle for Renée Fleming. Without her there would be little reason to mount the opera. While it has moments that work quite well, its length far exceeds its worth. So how did she do? Very well. Well enough to justify reviving the work.

To start she was radiant in all her beauty. There’s not a wrinkle on her forehead though she’ll soon turn 50. Much of her gorgeous face is immobile. Fortunately she can move her mouth and her vocal cords. Her cosmetic surgeon is surely at the very top of his field. Vocally as well as visually she was in fine shape. Her sound was luscious and she spun out beautiful pianissimi that made the most of Massenet’s patchy score. “Miroir, dis-moi que je suis belle” was sung with feeling and expression except for a little difficulty with its climactic high D. The aria is a precursor of the Marschallin’s soliloquy at the end of Rosenkavalier’s first act. Both characters muse sadly about growing old – fatal for the career of Thaïs and depressing for Strauss’s princess.   My only quibble with Fleming’s interpretation was that she was too wholesome for the part and looked the picture of health during her death scene. After she died I expected her to open her eyes and tell everyone that she was just fooling.

Designer Christian Lacroix was recruited to create Ms Fleming’s costumes. The gowns he made are in the style of the mid 19th century which is where the action was moved. Why here rather than the early Christian era which is where both Anatole France’s novel and the original staging are set is unanswerable. Why a high profile designer was needed to make Fleming look like a Victorian overstuffed sofa is another imponderable. But what do I know about couture? Obviously nothing as all the women at the performance I talked to loved the outfits. I thought Joe the Plumber could have fitted the diva with better duds. I hoping for something like Hedy Lamar’s diaphanous dresses in Samson and Delilah.

Thomas Hampson was fine  as Athanaël the sexually challenged Cenobite monk, though he tended to bellow his way through some of his part’s more forceful sections . He also made a lot of funny faces which were accentuated by the close up shots. Michael Schade (Nicias) has a serviceable light tenor and Alain Vernhes was sensible as Palémon the old monk who warns Athanaël to stay away from loose women – good advice that always falls on deaf ears. Concertmaster David Chan played the opera’s best known number, The Meditation, with beauty and a sure tone. Jesus López-Cobos conducted. His grasp of the score was authoritative. The Met’s orchestra played very well for him. Thaïs is a score outside the mainstream that deserves a production by a major house three or four times a century.

Finally, the sets were not credited to anyone in the program. Opera News says they were designed by Paul Brown. They were serviceable though the desert looked like it was made of Lego blocks. The video direction was again unobtrusive as it should be – a relief after the in your face presentation of the Berlioz Faust. The Met can now put this piece back in the warehouse for another generation until the next beautiful diva arrives. In the meantime we can reengage Ms Fleming as the Met’s HD hostess. Placido Domingo filled in for her during this broadcast. He was obviously unprepared using cue cards during his interviews. In addition to being a great singer Fleming is terrific as the image of these broadcasts. I hope she’s available for the remaining ones.