Sunday, April 21, 2013


After the catastrophically bad Met Siegfried Saturday, April 21, with an unbelievably painful to hear final duet, (and they had their propagandists telling everybody this conductor, Luisi, was great -- maybe at making cold vegan Lasagna) -- I was reminded that last week I was wondering whether the lousy casts of the Met's Ring were a response to the awful Lepage production. Given the long lead time of opera casting, I doubted it. But I received the following communication from an "insider":

"A good friend of mine stood on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera when Bryn Terfel said he would honor his contract for the complete three cycles of the Ring last year, but would cancel his contract for Gelb's second coming of the disaster. He described the production as unsafe and he was no longer going to risk his life and limbs as he cared more about being a Father to his children. This necessitated the hiring of the bellowing Delavan and even worse Grimsley, as anyone else worth their weight in salt either was booked, or would not work with the Lepage debacle. Apparently they are running at 51% capacity, which necessitates Gelb to go to "little old lady land" to find money to offset the disastrous take. My understanding from my spy on the Board is he has been given a contract extension at the whim of Board Chairperson Ann Ziff who has now given a genuine fortune to cover his disasters. The Board has remained mute for fear if they try to push her, they will have to cover the losses themselves....though the majority would like to see his backside I've been told...."

Further this confident wrote:

"Ziff initially gave 38 mil, which essentially was gobbled up by the Ring, the second gift brought her to 53 mil and guaranteed her chairmanship and with it Gelb. It's sad, meanwhile Deborah Borda who was given the job, only to have it taken away is in LA..."

I have no reason to distrust this person and know from other sources that his numbers are ballpark. Although I think most people know the Borda story, perhaps it's worth repeating. She had run the New York Philharmonic with great success; she is a musician of superb training, and has a passion for opera. She was assured she had the job. Now I don't know if that means that some board insiders promised it to her, or if there was a handshake all 'round. Gelb had been dismissed from Sony, which he left a wreck. A stupid man, uneducated, a philistine and a fool, he had already been thrown out of the Met by Joseph Volpe (no threat to Niels Bohr but actually a decent practical manager) as a money wasting idiot. He needed a job.

Suddenly!!! Like the Yenta of the Night, Beverly Sills --

-- about to eat lunch. ("You know," she told the Widder Claggart over breakfast once, "I started my career in a whore house... singing" If that was singing give me syphilis! But she knew all about selling herself. And stabbing people in the back. Just ask Phyllis Curtain, June Anderson, the late Jerry Hadley and the great Patricia Brooks).

Sills was a superbly connected operator politically and socially, through her wealthy WASP husband. She decided to help Peter Gelb. His father, the homophobic idiot, Arthur, had helped her in her career by pushing her at The New York Times, where he was the Capo, as they say in the Mafia. She paid back the favor. She stabbed Borda, and proposed Peter Gelb, who was jabbed into the job, and Borda went to LA to run the Philharmonic.

I asked a friend, a wealthy insider, about operations there. He responded:

"She's a major success with innovative programming, raves from the public and critics alike and a healthy operation which to my understanding is in the black."

Although I think opera is dead in America, and is probably dying as a form, as most art forms inherited from the 19th century are in a world suddenly inimical to what these arts require from their audiences, it's a sad story about the Met. Stupidity has conquered there as it has throughout American society.

But since I was talking about Die Walküre there's a recent recording: I call it Once Over Lightly Through The Magic Fire:

Complete recordings of Die Walküre, the most popular opera from Richard Wagner’s Ring, can be stacked into a mountain. This one is conducted by the highly promoted Valery Gergiev conducting “his” orchestra from the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. It stars three of today’s hottest Wagnerians: Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, René Pape as Wotan, and Nina Stemme, our reigning Brünnhilde. It’s a multi-miked, sonically highly contrived bore. Gergiev is superficial, scenes don’t play for theatrical impact, he fails to get his (sometimes iffy) orchestra to dig into rhythms, phrases lack imagination, and he seems to miss the point of details, even when he observes them. Slow or fast doesn’t matter that much—one of the best studio stand-alone Walküres, the very inexpensive Leinsdorf recording, now on Decca, is fast but firm, alert and well pointed. The live Bayreuth performance conducted by Clemens Krauss in 1953 is swift but thrilling. Gergiev is simply noncommittal.

There isn’t much the singers can do in this context. Siegmund is low for Kaufmann; here he settles for dignity. His most beautiful moment is his farewell to the sleeping Sieglinde in Act 2, “Zauberfest”. There are some other wonderful sounding phrases, but exaltation and grief are gone. He is a mid weight tenor, a very dark sounding lyric and his voice sounds its best live when he can move upwards. He has an exciting top, maybe a little short of overtones but still potent. He's audible throughout the range even in the huge spaces of the Metropolitan opera but not in a way that carries much sheer impact. His Parsifal recently was a well gauged performance, which he paced well, taking some understandable refuge in atmospheric whispers, but he was able to sing out to some effect in both "Amfortas! Die Wunde" and the final declaration, "Nur eine Waffe taugt".

But Parsifal is an essentially lyric part, with little to sing in act one, carefully set up moments in act two, and a moderately demanding though not exhausting act three. Kaufmann had neither the enormous impact nor emotional abandon of Jon Vickers, who literally sought to become Jesus Christ in act two and did, in the best of his performances, even doing a little levitation.

Kaufmann has artistic intent, genuine intelligence, a voice that works and he looks great --

(Jonas and Mrs. John Claggart's granddaughter, though we are often taken for twins!)

--for the queens of New York that is God enough. But there is something a little business like about him live; he's always a careful pro measuring out his effects. Siegmund is too low for him; everyone knows it's virtually a baritone part, though one that has an exposed climax in act one in "Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater" as the beset warrior poet cries out what he thinks is his father's name -- Waelse. It is sung twice, first on a G-flat and then again on a G -- this is passaggio area for a tenor and difficult. Melchior used to sit on it for days (as can be heard on broadcasts from the Met), Vickers would shake the walls. Kaufmann manages within his means. That he must calculate his effects in a role so consistently low mutes his performance and robs what he does of color. At the Met live, he was sabotaged by Lepage's amateurish direction of the singers, the tremulous Levine's shaky control, especially on the first night, and his own caution. This shouldn't matter on a recording but it does; he's dull. His recent Decca Wagner collection is far more compelling (though oddly the Walküre selection, "Ein Schwert...", is weak there too).

Rene Pape should have been a truly great singer. That the various and abundant idiots describe him as such is only an admission of their ignorance and lowered expectation. After all, just think of the scum bag opinion makers such as the moron Charles Michener, the former priest James Oetreich (well, whether he got fucked as he fucked over writers in his Times post, he got shrived and arranged to marry a genital female)and the monstrous, Manuella Hoelterhoff Bloomburger-muncher whose last ghost writer -- she doesn't know anything about music though she won a Pulitzer for writing about it (!) -- committed suicide rather than take another phone call from her.

Pape began with a magnificent rolling basso cantante, ideal for the Wagner "Heldenbariton" roles.

I once encountered the mighty Aussie, Sally Billinghurst, a secretary, who, through will and the fact that dumb as she is, everyone around her was dumber, rose high at the Met in casting. This encounter happened in the late 90's but I remember the conversation thus:

Mrs. John Claggart: "Pape is so wonderful sounding that he should be moving into Wotan." Billinghurst: "He's too young."
The Widder Claggart: "But Freidrich Schorr and Hans Hotter had done complete Ring Cycles by the time they were 25."
Billinghurst: "Who?"

She had no idea who they were -- two of the greatest and most iconic Wagner bass-baritones of the 20th century, and well documented as well. How do you advise on casting when you have no standards, no idea of what can be achieved in difficult roles? Pape was always an interpretative lightweight but at the time one reasonably expected more depth would come. Well by miracle or magic spell or mayhap both, or perhaps it was true love -- lovelovelove!!! -- Billinghurst --

-- has made a formidable marriage to a power on the Met Board so we know The Met's an institution where cretins rise, as farts do in a steam bath after everyone has lunched on baked beans.

But then again, there is her colleague in charge of casting at the Met, one Jonathan Friend, a homely dwarf who is the niece or nephew (one would need a gynecological investigation to be sure) of the horror with the wooden teeth, Joan Ingpen. She was casting black widow spider at Covent Garden and then the Met when both often offered the worst casts to be found in a world vocally richer than ours. Friend (enemy of the art)was made head of casting at the Met in her wake, before her wake (nothing splinters a family more than wooden teeth, maybe they decided not to wake her, I'm sure they didn't want to wake her up!). It is rumored that Friend got his job through sexual intrigue (if true, desperation and blindness would have to explain such an erection to power).

Astrid Varnay was mentioned to him. "You mean the comprinario?" He responded (it is averred) in his fraudulent upper class accent, for like Eliza Dolittle he is from the London gutter -- that comprimaria -- as Varnay being a genital female for certain would be described -- was one of the greatest and most widely documented Brünnhildes and Elektras of the 50's and 60's, a great star.

These are the insects who cast at the once great Met. Gelb's Met.

Pape sounds pressured even on the CD; the mikes are so close that a hoarse edge can be heard on his tone. It’s still often an impressive sound, but he makes nothing at all of the words and, like the conductor, skates over the trickier passages while phrasing like a lump. No rage, heartbreak, or terror here: when he accuses and punishes Brünnhilde in Act Three it sounds like he’s chiding her for leaving the crusts on the cucumber sandwiches.

Anna Kampe, Sieglinde, and Ekaterina Gubanova, very tame as the fierce Fricka, are well-routined pros, no more, no less. The Valkyries drafted for the famous “Ride” are nothing special compared to any number of other complete recordings, Gergiev’s rhythm is unsteady, and the thousand mikes do not pick up the wonderful orchestral details in this sequence. They can be heard on another speedy but spectacularly played and recorded Walküre, that by Marek Janowski (soon to be cheap on Sony).

Nina Stemme, Brünnhilde, takes over when she can and shows that even in this glib, glossy context, the words and phrases can matter; tension, suspense, grief, and exaltation can be expressed. She can’t do it enough to save the performance and one might argue that it is a good, very secure voice rather than a great one, but it shows her as a powerfully expressive singer. Those obsessed with this over-sold conductor and these famous singers will bite, others interested in Die Walküre should look elsewhere.

Leinsdorf and Janowski are genuine bargains. Leinsdorf has the better cast and also the London Symphony playing splendidly. Jon Vickers in his prime, and Birgit Nilsson more or less at the start of her big international career are thrilling, as is Rita Gorr, an amazing Fricka. George London and Gré Brouwenstijn, great singers both, struggle here a bit, and David Ward sings Hunding as as Head Butler.

Janowski starts off small scaled and a little cautious though he has the advantage of the spectacular Dresden Staatskapelle. His first act has Jessye Norman and Kurt Moll in their absolute primes and both are thrilling. Siegfried Jerusalem, a light tenor, who none the less went on to sing ALL the heavy Wagner roles is a capable Siegmund. The Valkyries who include Cheryl Studer in her prime and the less famous but very good Ruth Falcon are frankly amazing. Trills are real and in place. Tuning, blending and contrasting is perfect, and as for the orchestra, when was the last time you heard the harp glissandi in "The Ride"? Not "miked up" but as part of the entire orchestral sonority. Janowski has an old sounding but authoritative Wotan, Theo Adam, and the gifted but out of her depth American, Jeannine Altmeyer as Brünnhilde, who does some good and some not so good singing in a twangy American accent!!!

One could go on to two Furtwaengler performances, the one, recorded live an act at a time, from Rome radio, not a very good orchestra and with a somewhat spotty, though committed cast. The second, an EMI commercial recording, is a stand alone. Furtwangler died shortly after it was made. EMI had hoped to record a complete Ring with him.

The Rome performance, though a must for widders who adore this conductor,

(He worshipped the Greeks and Stefan George as a young beauty, latter changing to worshiping women!!!)

(He was said to wield a huge baton in life as well as in art!! Ahi..........)

The Widder fainted there--

but was saying, The Rome performance has serious limits in execution, though with no retakes, a standard broadcast set up and a lesser orchestra he runs rings around Gergiev not only in understanding, but in technical skill, the more impressive given the limits of some of the participants.

On EMI he has the Vienna Philharmonic who know exactly how to provide the ripe carefully inflected bass line he wanted, manage the gorgeously shaped transitions seamlessly and give unstintingly in the more emotional music. I adore this Brünnhilde, Martha Mödl (also on the Rome set)

but she is a special taste; a fascinating voice pushed up from contralto depths to an unreliable top, and apt to struggle through some of the trickier music. But what soul and emotional power!

(this is from The Ghost Sonata by Jay Reise, she sang until she was in her 90s)

Almost exactly the same things can be said about Ludwig Suthaus, the Siegmund. They and the conductor manage one of the two most moving Todesverkündigung ("Announcement of Death") Scenes I've heard on records, it's an overwhelming experience. (The other is the truly great part of the Karajan recording on DG, with a huge dynamic and coloristic range from the orchestra, which somehow, against the odds, sounds spontaneous here, and Jon Vickers and Regine Crespin as Brünnhilde -- she was a very famous and unforgettable Sieglinde, which she recorded for Solti -- but is among the most profound singers of this scene.)

Gottlob Frick is a stunning Hunding, and, one of the great German singers from the 30's, Margarete Klose, still has enough to make a fantastic Fricka. Unfortunately, Leonie Rysanek, a once in a lifetime singer, thrilling to see, cannot manage to sing a reliably tuned, consistently pleasant sounding Sieglinde (the role is too low for her), and the Wotan, Ferdinand Franz (also in Rome), though he began his career in the late forties with a beautiful voice, by the time of these recordings, tends to sound dry and struggle with the top, although he too has spirit and commitment.

Those who think I'm being hard on "Leonie" as she was known, can get a sense of her in the third act, recorded complete by EMI in 1951. Karajan's sweeping, thrilling conducting, the do or die abandon of Rysanek in what is the most congenial part of the role for her, the stunning Varnay and the beautiful sounding Sigurd Bjorling as Wotan (not to be confused with the legendary tenor, Jussi) makes this quite a statement of the act.

Well, my goodness, I could go on and on. But this week, I'll stop here. Next week, I will deal with the whoring of Maria Callas. The nonfictional account of the pimping of an artist by a raging bottom. Feeder, that is.

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