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Sex abuse accusations against Levine

It was a matter of time until this reached the opera world (though it appears the time was very long indeed and the Met is likely not to come off too well for doing nothing about it until now). I wonder what else will come out and about whom…

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Baroque opera at the Met (try harder)

The excuse I hear for why the Met and other big American companies don’t do more Handel is that their stages and auditoriums are too big. In fact, “large” operas do not have to be in big theaters and “small” operas (whatever that means) do not have to be in small ones. London’s Queen’s (later King’s) Theatre, with a seating capacity of about 1200, saw the premieres of more than 25 Handel operas. In contrast, Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, which has 700 seats, hosted the premieres of Verdi’s Ernani, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra, all of which we now associate with large opera houses. (from In Opera, Artistry Matters More Than Size)

Too often we think in terms of received size and too little in how things could be or were done. For practical purposes we might want to refurbish opera houses rather than have Handelians shout in hangar halls. After Rodelinda at ENO, nah, just make sure you have a sensitive conductor and an orchestra who knows what they’re doing.

Plotkin also muses:

I love modern and new opera but wonder whether we are missing a lot by not having masterpieces from the first 150 years of opera, which was born in 1597.

What’s more important, keeping to large halls or hearing good music? So perhaps the Met needs a local stage for its Handel, which can go up to 1500 capacity or so. That’s ideal but failing that conductor -> orchestra -> singers who can sing the music.

That’s probably the easy part; the most difficult thing must be the perception of how opera sounds and to some extent, its heroes/heroines. If the usual Met public is coming for high Cs and sopranos dying of TB and other patriarchy induced issues, the transition to Baroque voices and heroines like Alcina, Agrippina and Poppea might take a while. That being said, if Boston has been doing its Baroque thing for so long, there is clearly a public hungry for this kind of thing.

Grand but intelligent Tito (Met, 6 December 1997)

This is one of the many revivals of that one and only Tito production the Met has ever had so it’s interesting to see how every cast makes it their own. In the 2012 one, Fritolli brought out the hilarity of certain moments but here Vaness is a typical grand diva. ASvO is (way) subtler and more of a knight errant than the courtier type Sesto EG portrayed. And ARJ is an wise and understanding older friend as opposed to Filianoti’s yearning for connection Tito.

Tito: Anthony Rolfe Johnson
Vitellia: Carol Vaness
Sesto: Anne Sofie von Otter
Annio: Angelika Kirchschlanger
Servilia: Heidi Grant-Murphy
Publio: John Cheek

Conductor: James Levine | Met Chorus and Orchestra, Sirius radio broadcast, 6 December 1997

A bit of digging reveals some interesting bits about this run of Tito: this particular performance, a matinee at the end of the run, was ARJ’s last Met performance. Annio was young Kirchschlanger’s debut at the Met and sounded quite auspicious. Vaness was unwell during the second performance and Brenda Harris (whose 2002 Vitellia I discussed here), as Vaness’ cover, saw herself debut straight into Vitellia’s tough act II. I don’t know how that went but there aren’t harder Mozart ways to make an impact, so go her.

Overture: zooming past (picking speed as it moves). Maestro has a long association with Tito and wants everyone in the audience to know this isn’t season filler.

Ma che, sempre l’istesso: Vitellia is ticked off and wants Sesto to know it. The way Vaness recites sounds like she also wants to make it clear this is Vitellia’s Grand Show. Knight on White Horse with a Mind of His Own Sesto is in high placating mode. He uses his own powers of seduction to try and cajole her.

It’s a a seduction sparring moment, I like it. Even when Vitellia says Fine, I’m leaving! and Sesto gets all wait! Wait! We’ll do it the way you want it, it still feels like he’s not actually afraid she’ll leave; it’s more part of their role-playing. I’ve always liked this very short bit at the beginning where we get a glimpse of their complex way of interacting and I’m always interested in how it’s done.

Come ti piace, imponi: Sesto says ok, hurt me and Vitellia delivers her verdict: kill your best friend. Sesto goes on oh, your wicked mind turns me on. The mille affetti bit can be taken in many ways, but I guess it might sound totally wrong but I’m so turned on is as good a way as any. Can’t really argue with fantasies, eh? Except when they’re starting to act on them.

Annio barges in Vitellia’s bedroom: Annio summons Sesto to his boss best friend’s side, Vaness’ Vitellia is cutting, Annio tells her to sock it and gives them the good news showcasing Tito’s self effacing nature. Vitellia realises her time might’ve come. I like the little cembalo pause, pregnant with possibility. It’s like Vitellia is quickly formulating a plan. Listen, gorgeous, let’s leave the dagger fantasy in the bedroom for the time being. Sesto thinks first Annio barging in at the inopportune time, now this! Blue ball moment if ever there was one. Vitellia steps on his foot and he says ah, fuck it! You’re always dangling release in front of me and then… Vitellia realises she’s gone a bit far but since Annio won’t go the hell away, she needs to convey the message via song.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: Vaness and Maestro know what this is about and she can convey seduction with much ability. It’s still mostly cold and remote but perhaps this Sesto really likes the hard to get kind.

Annio : Sesto: Annio explains his other (real?) reason for dropping by on his buddy’s booty call. Annio, that’s a bit selfish. Sesto has it hard to begin with, let him cope a feel when/while he can. Sesto, though, states that he loves being intrerupted at such time by his (other) best friend. Sesto, you martyr, stop putting others’ happiness before yours!

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: if you can’t touch your girlfriend, you could do a lot worse than getting a hug from your pal. Very nice blending from ASvO and Kirchschalnger.

March/Serbate dei custodi: everybody in their place, Tito’s coming. Maestro likes it speedy but doesn’t shy away from measured paces either. The choir could’ve learned a bit from the above blending but they make it through.

Tito is in the house: the loot talk is cut, Tito tells all to leave him with the boys. Works for us but “in real life” that would’ve been a bit strange. Then again, back then sometimes the whole point was just “to see” the celebrity of the day. Maybe still is, come to think of it.

Annio : Sesto : Tito: Annio knows what he wants, Sesto is pretty gutsy, Tito doesn’t really want to talk about it, good call. But what he does want is to reward Sesto with the title of Imperial Brother-in-Law. Well acted by all, good interplay.

Del piu sublime soglio: ARJ knew his Mozart, his segue from recit to singing is very natural (as is his phrasing). Gotta love the elasticity of his voice even at the ripe age of 57. Very good diction for a non-Italian.

Non ci pentiam: Annio tries, in spite of his hotblooded nature, to do the right thing. His girlfriend has a hard time understanding his brusqueness. HGM is all right, I just wish her voice was nicer.

Ah perdona il primo affetto: I hadn’t heard much of Kirchshlanger so far and that might’ve been a mistake. I like her light but smokey tone and she’s very committed. Her Annio is more serious but along the same knightly lines as ASvO’s Sesto which makes them more matched over the entire arc than is usually the case. Her and HGM mix rather well.

Tito : Publio : Servilia: Publio tries to interest Tito in secret police business but that goes against Tito’s ethos. He can’t be happier when Servilia interrupts. Nice accent on Servilia! Augusta! – with a soft inflection, rather than a grand one, on augusta. HGM again does rather well with her recit, her Servilia is no damsel in distress but will do what needs to be done if there’s no way out.

Ah se fosse intorno al trono: when I first heard ARJ in the Gardiner recording (which is still in the vault) I wasn’t so sure. But actually he’s got just the kind of voice Tito needs. He’s not quite as ecstatic as other Titi here but he’s an older, less starry-eyed Tito. What he projects is surprised delight at Servilia’s uprightness.

There is a reason Tito never gets old for me. Well, there are a few reasons. But wrestling with forgiveness is one of them, as is feeling touched when I encounter goodness.

A lot of times people don’t clap at Ah se fosse but the trusty Met audience made noise. It doesn’t always have to be vocal acrobatics, arranging the notes in such a way as to express something genuine does the trick.

Servilia : Vitellia: phew, close call there, says Servilia, but Vitellia is convinced what she overheard means something completely different. She puts on a fake face but Servilia knows better and – quite playfully – she doesn’t make it easy for her. I bet Servilia has always thought why does Sesto have to like this dreadful woman? Can’t stand her.

pre-Parto recit: Vitellia, in high grand diva mode, moans about Tito’s blindness when it comes to her person. She is deeply offended and isn’t playing anymore. She wants blood yesterday. Breathless Sesto shows up – presumably hoping to be the one to break the news about his sister’s new Imperial appointment to his soon very angry girlfriend. Too late! She knows and she doesn’t spare him.

She deliberately taunts him, by telling him she loved Tito and might love him again, then questioning his macho side and suggesting he lacks ambition. Heavy duty. Sesto can’t take it anymore and says he’s ready to slash Tito then of course catches himself, she laughs at him etc.

It’s well acted by both but I still think a bit of trimming would’ve made it more intense. Her taunting speech, for instance, goes on too long to warrant Sesto’s outburst. In real life he would’ve interrupted her at some point (I’d’ve done it right after she said she could possibly love Tito again 😉 ) instead of listening to all that abuse and then saying his bit. Otherwise he’d have had time to cool off and realise either that she was taunting him or that it was madness to do what she wanted him to do.

Parto: a variant of ASvO’s knightly romantic approach to Sesto (he’s chivalrous and he knows he’s good looking; teoretically no woman should be left unimpressed by his giuramenti. This might be why he’s taken on such a difficult one). I know she wore “Roman” rags but I see this Sesto sporting that Ariodante armour.

The first vorrai faros are super determined (what dagger, he’s picking up a mighty sword or a mace!). But then ritorna in pace is seductive and languid. Come on, Vitellia, you know I adore you. Show me some kindness in return. Later on the languidity moves to vorrai faro and ASvO pulls a beseeching guar-da-mi!, taken at slow and deliberat pace – the woman knows what she’s doing, especially as this comes right before the stretto. The contrast is optimal. Her alla beltas are swoony because, well, Sesto is again turned on, thinking after –this– she must reward me.

Very good stuff, replay worthy so you can get all the detail. The audience barely gave themselves time to breathe in the last note before mad applause. To think I was living in NYC at the time…

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai…: Vitellia is dark with rage but sure Sesto will do what he promised with such great panache and conviction. Publio and Annio show up to surprise her, good acting from them.

Vengo…! Apetatte… Sesto!!!: fast and furious, suits Vaness well and good support from Annio and Publio.

Such a good piece! When I hear stuff like this (delivered like this) I wonder why people have looked down on Tito for so long. Yes, the DaPonte operas are genre defining but so is this. It’s all about concision, opera seria without the excess.

Act I finale

ASvO has this expansive way about her. She can pick up speed but she’s never harried. Sesto sounds very upset with himself but he never loses his grand style. Maestro keeps a good control on this finale. Everybody hits their cue on time and sounds solid, no missed opportunities.

Act II

Annio : Sesto: reliable Annio, Sesto only too ready to find a shoulder to cry on in his buddy – and they do sound like credible buddies.

Torna di Tito a lato: very earnest

Partir deggio…?: Sesto is confused for once but a very alarmed Vitellia shows up before he has time to get too murky. Rather surprised, Sesto tells her that he would rather die than betray her (remember, I’m your knight, Vitellia) but she’s not fooled. She knows he cares about Tito and would find it very hard to keep secrets from him. Publio is hot on her trail and knows all. Sesto tries to be sneaky (very good e… perche?) when he asks for his dagger but Publio has no time for verbal sparring. Lively Sesto gets annoyed with Vitellia (ingrata! addio…) but he also knows he still loves her and wants her to process this information:

Se al volto mai ti senti: Sesto makes this a serenade where he pours all his feelings. He’s not the usual ethereal dude of this melancholic trio, he’s flesh and blood, with a rose in his teeth under Vitellia’s window (open the window, Vitellia, and blow me a kiss. Have mercy, my love, it’s cold out here). Vitellia keeps her cool though the words say otherwise. The way ASvO says addio! is still like as if Vitellia’s “dad” caught them out past the curfew. Rammenta chi t’adora is stop acting hard to get, I know you want it too. Well, yes, they have a connection and it should come through here but this one is less ambiguous than most. Not quite as it should be but why not?

Ah grazie: it’s snowing outside, good timing for the segue in from ARJ, the choir playing a bit of catch-up with each other

Tito : Publio: well acted

Tardi s’avvede: a thick bass vocie, I like it; Cheek isn’t world shaking but no fool either

Tu fosti tradito: Kirchschlanger does darkening for “balls” reasons, nice attack, good trills, all around a good, earnest job; public ecstatic. It didn’t hurt that she must’ve been one of the best looking Annios 😉

Tito is angry: ARJ can act

Quello di Tito e il volto: Sesto is hyping himself for courage; ASvO is of course knightly, she and ARJ match well temperamentally and their Publio is no kindly minder either. Sesto loses a bit of heart halfway through due to feeling like shit, vacillates between embarrassment and his normal knightly nature. His Tito is very kind, the kindest perhaps – ARJ sings most of it softly, quite unusual but very effective.

Tito : Sesto: this Sesto wants to confess a lot more than other do and ASvO is very good at feverishness without overdoing it. ARJ continues his most kind approach. Later his anger is just enough to sound credible. Like I said, the man could act and so does ASvO. Their chemistry is right on the money.

Deh, per questo instante solo: Sesto bends a knee and starts his seduction. In this production, the relationship between Tito and Sesto is more of mentor and pupil – more so this particular pairing – where the age difference feels quite pronounced. This is the most believe me, Tito, I’m a good, upright chap Deh, per questo I have heard so far. Finally Sesto finds a way to confess without quite telling everything – and we know this one really wanted to.

ASvO’s Sesto is interesting in that he never lost the confidence in his own goodness. He’s perhaps the most balanced Sesto out there. He knows he’s good, he understands he has made a big mistake but he doesn’t overdramatise the situation. The Met audience has its own trademark type of clapping, you’ll know it when you hear it = more ecstatic than anywhere else. It feels almost like they’ve discovered a new great aria nobody’s heard of before 😉

Tito makes up his mind: Tito tears the death warrant; it sounds like he tramples on tarp

Se all’impero: Maestro is chipper (good decision, Tito! We were scared there for a moment). ARJ fubs the words a few times but everything else works well and is done with aplomb, sounding easier than in most cases. The public loved it (or him). I also like him a lot.

Servilia : Annio : Vitellia: Annio is serious but alarmed, piqued Servilia urges Vitellia to get over herself already, Vitellia keeping her cards close to her chest

S’altro che lagrime: HGM has mildly bugged me in the past. Here she sounds eye-poppingly old school, like a voice come straight from the ’50s. Her non gioveras are good if a bit thin and she’s appropriately soulful, which makes it a better experience than hearing her in the past has been but it’s still a bit odd.

Ecco il punto…/Non piu di fiori: Vaness’ voice has the cold edge we usually associate with Vitelliae. She’s occasionally a bit detached but mostly on, if always keeping “grand diva” in mind.

Maestro takes the rondo at leisurely pace, which imbues it with an air of “pleasant” regret. Astute idea. Vitellia is, of course, confident in her every decision, including that of self punishment. The agreeable basset horn reflects that self satisfaction. So this rendition is another display of Vitellia’s big stage scheming, rather than humble pie. Vaness carries that with the kind of gravitas I associate with the Met stage in general (big, in your face). Her range is good, her middle and the low notes are especially handsome, plump enough for Vitellia. The top is a bit acidic but that’s also Vitellia. Not as emotionally raw as other versions but a solid and fitting (to this production) one nevertheless. The Met public fights for its right to clapping and find a compromise with Levine in which they both do their thing.

Act II finale

As per stray, Che del ciel comes off as if sung by ecstatic Roman crowds rather than by a disciplined choir. It might’ve caught me at a good moment because I don’t mind it as much as I could’ve. Tito is grand but kindly and goes on a bit to some biting strings, Vitellia appears to have become acquainted with shame a teensy bit (though her confession still feels like an epilogue to the Grand Vitellia Show). Sesto is fervently regretful, Tito is pleased (very good, my son, very good), the others blend well. Eterni dei has some major turbulence (vibrato) on the soprano part but ARJ’s honest man tenor rings very pleasantly.

I knew I had a Tito ally in Levine and he doesn’t disappoint. His choices of soloists are apt and he works well with the rest. Thank you, stray, as though not quite a classic, it’s very satisfying, especially where ASvO is concerned (it’s always worth making time for her Sesto) 🙂

ps: any typos, I’ll come back to check tomorrow.

Think you love opera? To death?

Would you have your ashes sprinkled into the pit of your favourite opera house?

New York City’s Metropolitan Opera was forced to cancel its Saturday afternoon performance of Guillaume Tell after an audience member sprinkled an unidentified powder, which police believe was cremated ashes, into the orchestra pit.

At the expense of sounding a bit too into the season, I find this idea tempting. Though I think “the sprinkler” went about it wrongly. First off, this is not something you share with your seatmates. You also don’t do it during intermission. I think the best time to go about it would be after the curtain falls, whilst everyone is gathering their things and the ushers can’t wait to go home. Then you nonchalantly turn your back to the pit and pour the ashes behind your back, just so. If anyone asks, you pretend some “tobacco” dropped out of your pocket >>charming smile<<.

But even better, assuming the pit does get swept occasionally, why not pour the ashes over a potted plant in the lobby? It’s organic. Surely the ghost or whatever can float into the auditorium if it wants to watch a show (I for one can see worse things than spending eternity in the Wigmore Hall lobby). Or, if the future ghost isn’t happy with that, you can sprinkle the ashes from the balcony onto the parterre during curtain calls. Just don’t be too obvious, it’s not like you have to sprinkle 3kg of ashes, is it?

Now, Guillaume Tell… an odd opera to sprinkle ashes to. But perhaps the dearly departed favoured it. My first thought for optimal ash sprinkling moment was Deh tu, bell’anima from I Capuleti e i Montecchi (precisely that one, thank you very much). You get everything there: a crypt, a (supposedly) dead love of your life and eternity. Also people might be discreetly bawling so less likely to be paying attention to you. Failing that (by which I mean a suitable Romeo), the Eterni dei chorus is a good option as well, what with being grand and lofty and final. Select a trusted conductor.

Anyway, have a good Day of the Dead season, all 🙂