I’ve been listening to soprano Montserrat Caballé this past week, in the days following her death at age 85. I first heard her at Carnegie Hall in December of 1965, when she sang Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Later that month my dad and I went to the Met for her début. She wanted to sing in the old house on 39th Street before it got torn down, and they slotted her in for a single performance of Faust. In April the next year, she appeared in the very emotional final concert in that venerable theater, and my dad and I were there too. I have a black-and-white photo of her singing the Rosenkavalier trio with Judith Raskin and Rosalind Elias. Well anyway, the top of their heads. We were in the dress circle on the side. (You can hear it on YouTube, where Judith Raskin appears to be singing Caballé off the stage. I remember she seemed a little pale vocally, though the famous opening line was spendid.)
I always had mixed feelings about Montsi, as she was known. Her sound had a unique sheen, concentrated and steady with a range of colors from an angelic gentleness to a marvelously petulant, authoritative Geschrei. When she was in good voice, she could be sublime. When she wasn’t, the Geschrei could get harsh. She was cavalier about words, especially when she was singing high. Theatrically she was also quite variable, sometimes quite moving, sometimes diva-ish, often quite inert. But she could stop time when it came to spinning out a long legato melody. Her breath control was awe-inspiring, and she could sustain a tune or a cadenza or a big high note longer than you thought possible, and with more beauty.
Here are a couple of great Caballé moments: the Act IV aria from Verdi’s “I vespri siciliani,” which ends with a two-and-a-half octave cadenza from high C to low F#. This is a fearsomely difficult piece and Caballé is transcendent. Floating the melody like an unbearably sad serenade, she bids farewell to life and to her lover.
Here are two versions: the commercial recording and live from the Met.
And for that petulant, belligerent Geschrei, here is the end of “Don Carlo” from the April 1972 broadcast of “Don Carlo.” It was the last matinee of the of Rudolph Bing’s 22-year tenure at Met. She holds the last high B for 15 seconds, a fitting valedictory to a departing Artistic Director. Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is opera.
We’ve made it… IT’S FRIDAY!!!!
So, what genres do I have left on my phone to explore? Well, frankly too many… so I’m going to avoid making you listen to a bunch of Jazz, Pop, Musicals, etc;. And no matter how tempting it is to tell you how They Might Be Giants has probably influenced me more than any other contemporary music, I’m going to go a different route. Instead, I am going to share some opera with you.
I mentioned in Wednesday’s blog how I feel about opera, but let’s just say that we didn’t hit it off at first. When I started college at Shenandoah Conservatory (all those years ago), I was a musical theater major. I loved singing and acting, but I didn’t really have much interest in opera, so I set my sights on Broadway. After one semester of early morning ballet classes, I began to think that perhaps I had chosen the wrong major, and I changed over to voice performance at the end of my Freshman year.
I loved my new voice teacher, Bard Suverkrop, and I immediately liked the complexity of performing opera… the way it challenged my mind to be present as an actor while also constantly having these systems of memory and physicality running on high priority in the background. It was (and is) very fun to do. I instantly got a lot of encouragement and I felt great about my choice to switch majors… but I didn’t really LIKE watching or listening to opera. It all seemed so staid and boring and safe. I remember conversations with my classmates where I hated on Callas, Terfel, and several other of my heroes (God, I was a douche… a big sorry to everyone I knew in those days).
But then, in a single clarifying moment, the course of my life would be forever changed. I was playing a video game on my computer, and decided to put on a CD that a friend let me borrow. I was just half listening to it in the background… and then, my operatic innocence was shattered by the most powerful high C I’d heard in my young naive life. Franco Corelli, at the end of Di quella pira. I sat there in kind of a shocked stunned silence…and then listened to it several more times. I just didn’t understand how I could be so wrong about opera. This was passionate… almost reckless… visceral and masculine… I LOVED THIS!!! And thus, my life was forever changed.
So, for your listening pleasure, a video of my favorite tenor (Corelli) and my favorite baritone (Bastianini) singing together in Napoli. The thing I love most about this video is how real and unproduced it is. You can see Bastianini stealing looks at the conductor, they aren’t together with the orchestra, you can hear the prompter, Corelli sings sharp, they get hissed at by the audience, and I’m pretty sure somebody throws rotten vegetables at them at the end.
It is real, and astounding, and beautiful… at least to me.
Thanks for reading, and for supporting my friends and colleagues at NYFOS. I’ve had a great time sharing some of my favorite music with you, and I hope you enjoyed yourself. To keep up with my singing engagements, I encourage you to visit my website www.JoshuaJeremiahBaritone.com, and to like my artist page over on Facebook at Joshua Jeremiah, Baritone.
Have a great weekend, and may the force be with you!
Today I’d like to present one of my favorite recordings of opera repertoire. It is the aria of Lady Macbeth from Verdi’s opera, sung by Shirley Verrett. The recording was made at La Scala, Milan, in 1975. I view this performance as not just one of the best embodiments of this heroine, but also as an outstanding model of vocal technique, artistry and incredible stage presence.
I admire singers like Shirley Verrett, Luciano Pavarotti, Elena Obraztsova, and Cesare Siepi. Not only were they gifted with wonderful voices, but they also attained perfection in using them. It’s my belief that real excitement in opera cannot be achieved without perfection of vocal technique. It doesn’t matter how gifted by nature the singer is, he or she needs a perfect instrument to convey all their feelings and thoughts to the audience. This should be done not just by mimics or movement but first and foremost with the voice.
Still, perfect voice is not enough. To make the character alive the singer must charge it with his extreme energy. In general, I think singing is a result of emotions a person feels that are too overwhelming for simple words, and the inside flame can be expressed only by singing. The emotions can be happy or sad, but they have to be strong. Good singing can’t happen without that strong ardor inside. The singer has also to understand the character in depth, absorb his special traits. Combining all three important components – technique, artistry and energy – is a great challenge. The singers who are able to do this are rare, admired by the public and unforgettable. Shirley Verrett is one of them. Fortunately, her recordings are plenty. I keep listening, enjoying them, learning from them. For example, Desdemona’s aria (Covent Garden, 1983) or Tosca (the Met, 1978), to name a few.
I’ve picked up this very aria as a pinnacle of exceptional technique control, beauty and fullness of sound, highest drama, power and energy. I think the ovation given by the demanding La Scala public speaks for itself.
Today’s blog post is less about a particular song and rather what I have been experiencing as of late after having made the move from New York City to Los Angeles, where I just joined the young artist program at LA Opera. It has been such a beautiful move in so many ways. Exploring new places is always a perk of this job, but even more so now that I have the ability to drive, which I haven’t for the past 23 years. I love LA’s stark polar-oppositeness to New York. Of course, I have inklings of missing Manhattan, but The West has a wonderful, strange mysticism that I am enjoying thoroughly. To have a brand new home base for the next few years is a very special thing, and I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that it is a great fit.
My first production here at the LA Opera is Verdi’s Macbeth, with Placido Domingo singing the title role, and a cast of some of the most brilliantly produced voices I’ve ever been around. Even the covers for the leading roles are absolutely world-class. This being said, I feel totally inadequate and out of my element in a Verdi rehearsal room. Firstly, I was not born with a Verdian instrument, so the music hasn’t been on my performance radar whatsoever. Secondly, there is something about the darkness and brutality of the Verdi vibe that just doesn’t lend itself to what I love so much about the creation of this art form. Steven Blier and I were in San Fransisco to perform a recital together, and we went to go see Don Carlo at SFO. It was a stellar cast, and there were incredible moments, but I walked out feeling strangely disconnected, a feeling I do not usually experience leaving the opera. Steve turned to me and basically said, “you know that was a very good Don Carlo, right?” I thought about it, and he was absolutely right. I could not pinpoint what I did not relate to about the piece, but I suppose it was just that. I simply did not relate to a 4-hour epic about the Spanish Inquisition.
This is not to say I don’t love Verdi’s incredible scores. Macbeth is filled with some of Verdi’s most epically haunting music. Take the curse music from Rigoletto (even though Macbeth precedes it) and essentially expand it across four acts. My favorite part of the entire piece (although it is a very hard call) is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Maybe I’m biased, because this is the scene in which I make my humble debut with the company as the Doctor, who bears witness to the madness of Lady Macbeth. This scene has quickly become one of my favorite mad scenes in opera. Am I a huge fan of Verdi’s setting of the works of Shakespeare? Eh. Not in the long run. However, under a microscope, each of the key moments in the plot are set with the type of intensity that only Verdi can supply. We are left with some absolutely incredible pieces of musical drama.
If I felt strange and out of place in the rehearsal room, my discomforts were quelled when we got into the theater. It turns out Verdi didn’t write Macbeth for a rehearsal room, and it is certainly something exhilarating to be onstage in a gorgeous 3000+ seat house hearing these singers do what they do (and doing a bit of it myself), learning from the dark, majestic sect of this art form called Verdi. Here for your listening pleasure is Maria Callas singing Lady Macbeth’s final grand scena, the Sleepwalking Scene, from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.
There is another “unofficial anthem” that I have a great fondness for – mostly because Verdi wrote it. Italy had several National Anthems dating back to 1871, though the current anthem “Il Canto degli Italiani” was adopted in 1946 in the post WW2 declaration of the Republic. However, even before that original anthem was adopted by the Italian government, Giuseppe Verdi was writing operas that some believe were laced with some political sentiment and ideas (see “O mia patria” from Aida if you want to get a dose of that).
1841 was a tough year for Verdi. He had recently lost his wife and small children. He was under contract with La Scala to write another opera, even though his previous work had been considered a flop. He was handed a libretto and told to write on that – a collection of old testament stories that told the tale of Jews being persecuted and exiled from their homeland by King Nebuchadnezzar. The text that convinced Verdi he could write this piece was that of the Hebrew slaves chorus, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” or “Go, thought, on wings of gold”. It is said that the first time it was sung in rehearsal, “the stagehands shouted their approval, then beat on the floor and the sets with their tools to create an even noisier demonstration”. Nabucco became Verdi’s first grand epic opera and a testament to his love and passion for country, as seen through the eyes and story of another long plighted people separated from their homeland.
It became an unofficial political song that was sung everywhere in Italy, in East Germany and around the world. The opera often stops at the point of the chorus and repeats so that the audience can sing along. As recently as 2009, it was discussed in the Italian government to be officially designated as the National Anthem.
It begins softly, in unison, and slowly grows, splitting into harmonic parts. The second section pulls back down to a quite minor, then swells grandly to the main chorus, in unison again. It finishes as quietly as it starts. Easily singable, in the middle of the vocal range, and a catchy, memorable tune with that classic Verdi three/four pulse underneath of it in the orchestra. But it stands on its own without accompaniment very well.
When Verdi died 60 years later, he was initially buried in a temporary grave, but was eventually moved to the Home for Retired Musicians cemetery, a place he had originally created. Some 300,000 people gathered in the streets and as Verdi’s remains were solemnly processed to their final resting place, the crowd spontaneously began to sing “Va pensiero” as his casket passed them. The power of that image, that kind of social unity expressed through song, is quite amazing.
There are so many amazing versions of this song, especially since it comes from an opera that has had some spectacular production recordings, but I’m quite fond of the recorded version conducted by Giuseppi Sinopoli, a wonderful Italian conductor and composer who was a great interpreter of Verdi’s work. He died not long after this recording, on the podium conducting Aida in Germany, away from his own homeland.
from Steven Blier:
I came home from the Met’s Otello last night in a bit of a funk. The opera got a strong, rich musical performance from the chorus and orchestra, a bit on the mellow side for my taste but sophisticated and deeply musical. I esteem Yannick Nézet-Séguin highly, and any conductor whose role model is Carlo Maria Giulini has good taste in role models. But the new tradition, which seems to be about removing all the old traditions, leaves me cold. There’s no scenery-chewing, but there is also no scenery. The constant parade of Plexiglas boxes only emphasizes the sense of not being in a real place, and the low-energy acting performances look like a tech dress where everyone is saving it for the paying audience. The singing was pretty impressive, although dramatic tenor Antonenko’s voice is an acquired taste I am not sure I can acquire. He’s not much of an actor but he really, really tried. But I am not used to seeing Iago, one of the most mysterious, demonic, inexplicably twisted characters in all of literature, played as a disaffected building superintendent who won’t fix your plumbing until the UPS guy brings the hardware he ordered.
I heard some wonderful Iagos back in the day, but the one who sticks in my imagination is Gabriel Bacquier. He walked onstage and the temperature in the hall dropped ten degrees. I don’t know how he did it, but the mental illness of the character and the veneer of normality made him the most menacing villain I ever saw in the theater. Here’s his “Credo” from that production.
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