Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Music at last! What a relief. I hate opera! Sometimes.

Writing a few weeks ago about what was once “new music”; I realized, not for the first time, that opera is a mental illness. A few days ago I listened to one of my favorite pieces, Brahms’ A major piano quartet, something even I played (badly) way back when. I staged a war between the old Arthur Rubenstein and the Guarnieri (Arthur’s second go at the piece, very romantic with a lot of rubato and Arthur clearly dominating the proceedings with many the tempo change mid phrase), the fantastic Sviatoslav Richter live performance with the Borodin quartet, an utterly demented and very thrilling performance, with the Borodins keeping up with Richter with ferocity (just barely in the orgiastic account of the final movement), the Domus quartet with Susan Tomes interrupting tea with just a few slices of mince tart and the great Hollywood Quartet with Victor Aller.

(this is another great performance, with the phenomenal Russian pianist Maria Yudina)

I read along with my tattered score and what was my response? “Thank The Dear there was no singing!” Music at last! What a relief. I’m sorry about the description at the head of this blog, I hate opera!

Sometimes. On Saturday, poor Mrs. Claggart’s Facebook page exploded with encomiums of varying hysteria to an Italian tenor named Mario del Monaco. (Mrs. Claggart has only three friends on Facebook, one of them “Mr. Bianco, IRS”. But she has 300,000 enemies, a category Zuckerberg’s elf invented just for her.) I had to wonder how many people had ever heard of Mario del Monaco? I know not many people currently alive heard him. Mrs. Claggart, when she was a boy, now that she’s a girl, heard him three times in two seasons before a nearly fatal automobile accident reduced his immense, deafening, nothing like it since volume, and prompted him to be more careful both about high notes, and his manner on stage, which became less obviously certifiable (though by the mid 1960’s he did regain some of that Twilight Zone Form adopted by the older Italian tenors). But there is a lot of Mario out there.

                                   (Mario sings "Ghost Riders in the Sky" in Italian)

He was a world star from the late forties and made a great many too closely miked records. Why, I knew a man who had perpetual ear ache. All in fear and atremble he went to his doctor. “Perhaps you’re having a stroke,” the doctor allowed reassuringly. Then the doctor settled back. “Have you been listening to Mario Del Monaco records?”

“Why yes, every night,” the patient replied. “For hours. My wife makes me use headphones” “Well, sir,” said the doctor, breaking out his old Calabash (this was when medical people smoked and died young), “there’s your answer. My wife dragged me to see this so called Del Monaco in Otello and though they all said he was sick and saving, I had a headache and hearing loss for a week. Switch to this young fella named Domingo. You can barely hear him, you’ll be good as new in a couple of days.”

Besides Mario’s commercial recordings (all on Decca except for an early EMI) there are tons of pirates. You can also see Mario. He journeyed to Japan with the Italian companies that ventured there every year starting around 1955. The cameras capture his exuberance. At the end of the Andrea Chenier with Renata Tebaldi, as they go off to the guillotine, he actually leaps toward the blade, loses his balance and falls off stage (and dances out to his deafening ovation like a champ). Audiences worshiped him (well, maybe not the English, they had Jimmy Johnston and Ken Clark for the big roles). The hysterical response given his Canio in Pagliacci there is amazing (but it’s a thrilling performance). He did a Carmen there with Giulietta Simionato, all the famous excerpts survive. In the final scene, failing to convince the obdurate Carmen to return to him, he beats his breast in heart break and frustration. I hadn’t seen that since my father did the same regarding me.

I played that excerpt for a couple of Manhattan litigators who said they were opera lovers. They roared with queenly hysteria. Luckily, I didn’t play the final scene from his Don Jose in Carmen at the Bolshoi, also a collection of excerpts with the great Russians, Irina Arkhipova and Pavel Lisitsian. There he screams, sobs, beats his chest, waves the knife and all but levitates when he finally runs to kill Carmen. What would those lawyers have made of that? And what would they have made of the Russian audience of dignitaries who riot after his Flower Song? (And yes, Don Jose sings it, not The Celestial Voice from Don Carlos, as James Oestreich seemed to think in his review of a recent Carmen in the Paper of Record the New York Times).

He was the most famous (though not the only important) singer of Verdi’s Otello in the 1950’s (bravo, Ramon Vinay!) and one can see him in Japan, reportedly with the flu but the abandon, ferocity and breast beating heart break are all there (as are the renowned Tito Gobbi as Iago and the adorable Gabriella Tucci).

But those litigators would have laughed; it’s a peek into a vanished era. They would have been indifferent to the (eloquent) gestural vocabulary that is part of the acting of the principals and inclined to giggle at “acting” techniques designed for the stage and those in the far balconies not for the camera, and perhaps embarrassed that a group of adults could take an opera as seriously as Del Monaco and Gobbi and Tucci do. Had those wealthy consigliori to the 1% been inclined to father children, their teenagers would have been completely bored within minutes and soon would have been texting, sexting, playing video games and surfing the ‘Net simultaneously.

The Japanese use a three camera technique, borrowed from American sit coms; it works, even in a big theater. The cameras can get close enough for detail but one never loses that this is a stage performance and distance is important. When the cameras pull back one can see three mikes hung from the ceiling, mid house. They are to get the sound clearly on the tape not to amplify or help the soloists. How different from the multi mike and camera fraudulence on the HD broadcasts from the Met, which deliver a very difference experience from the one those sitting in the theater had.

These Japan performances (and the highlights from The Bolshoi) are probably best experienced from VAI (www.vaimusic.com). They’ve put archival films on DVD and cleaned them up as much as possible. All the Japanese films have Kangi subtitles with English subtitles under them, which takes some getting used to. The picture quality of the earlier performances is often somewhat washed out. Besides Mario, there are marvelous demonstrations by Carlo Bergonzi (an amazing Un Ballo in Maschera), Renata Scotto, Alfredo Kraus (an incredible Faust) and Antonietta Stella (my high school pals and I used to call her Toni Starr. I met her some years later and explained this would have been her Motown Name. She squealed with joy). Her performance of Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West is stunning, the only completely idiomatic and the best sung on a video in an otherwise somewhat ramshackle performance.

Mario also appeared on the RAI films that began to be made for Italian TV in the early fifties. They are lip synched but they are carefully prepared and feature singers who are forgotten now like Mrs. John Claggart and her twin and we aren’t even dead (who would miss Clara Petrella in Manon Lescaut and Il Tabarro or Carla Gavazzi in Cavalleria Rusticana? There is even a great Pagliacci with the young, gorgeous Franco Corelli, who, freed of having to produce his tone live, proves to be a wonderful and moving actor. Mario’s accident cleared the way for him to become “the greatest Italian tenor” in the world, and although he couldn’t count, phrase, and sing at the same time, liked to squeeze his nose, wiggle his jaw and do tongue exercises while others sang in live performances, the sound was thrilling. Mario hated him. Naturally. I hate a lot of people too. I understand).

(The Chenier doesn't translate from You Tube, this is from the Otello with Carteri)

Not all the RAI films are so effective. These involve one massive camera stalking the singers. The great Rosanna Carteri sings a spectacular Violetta in La Traviata but has a hard time lip synching, becomes self conscious and then, when the huge camera machine comes swooping in for her close ups, she starts to run away from it. She had charisma, though; if not there, in a performance filmed live in Naples by RAI in 1958. This is of Puccini’s usually dismissed La Rondine, but it is a very moving performance, conducted by a Puccini pal, quite old obviously, Vincenzo Bellezza, who understands the heart breaking nostalgia for a time lost that throbs under nearly every bar, unashamed to use string portamenti and a well controlled but large scale rubato to make these melodies soar (how plain so many sound elsewhere! Even Brahms would have cried). Carteri was very beautiful and is so full of longing and tears that the entire experience is unforgettable. This is also in excellent quality from VAI, distributing the Italian Hardy Label.

Wait have I become an opera queen again? I’ve relapsed!!! As Anthony Wiener knows, the Brahms rehab center did not take!!!

Well, I am a writer with the runs in any case. And we were talking about Mario. He did an outstanding Otello for RAI. But his best performance is in a stunning film of Andrea Chenier. The hokey storey is enacted with life or death intensity, and that extends to all the roles, even the smallest, played with almost Dickensian detail by those wonderful Italian supporting singers of that era (they’ve vanished, as have the stars – none have had successors). Understanding that there is no audience present and that the camera will come very close, Mario who was a good looking man, is utterly human, believable. He relaxes into a completely natural impersonation of the doomed poet. And he is matched by those great singers, Toni Starr and Giuseppe Taddei.

Let’s face it, there was nothing wrong with the composer, Umberto Giordano, that five more years in a tough American conservatory wouldn’t have fixed. Well, he wasn’t as great a tune smith as Cole Porter (who did time in a tough French conservatory, the Schola Cantorum) but in this opera he knows how to set up his tunes very effectively and the recitative beginnings to the many sections that will eventually almost flower into being memorable are wonderfully done. James Levine told me that Chenier was one of the hardest operas to do; Giordano does not use key signatures not because he couldn’t read music as the naughty have had it, but because he belonged to a political movement that disliked hierarchies of all kinds. But Mo. Levine averred getting winds and brass to deal accurately with music full of accidentals (signs that the note should be played up or down) was murder.

The RAI films can be found in good quality from Premiere Opera, and they have good prices, too! (www.premiereopera.com/)

Well, Sunday cleared the air for Mario. But opera? There is this gene (or is it a mixture of nature and nurture?) that makes some of us deeply sensitive to voices, so much so, that a timbre and manner we respond to, even on record, seems three dimensional to us. We can become obsessed with some of those magicians, to the exclusion of other factors that matter in opera. Mrs. John Claggart adores music. The sad thing about opera is that it is, I believe, very dependent on vocal capacity. This is not to say that a great conductor, a persuasive production, the music itself can't compensate for a merely adequate cast. I think sadly, that even adequate casts are rarer than they were in a time when singers were generally less well prepared musically and far less inclined to "act" whatever that may mean in opera. I see on the “Opera ‘Net” people claiming that Konzept style productions will bring youths into the opera house. I like some of those productions too. But if those youths have no response to the music, what is there to enjoy in a Konzept production? I have met many the intellectual (and great) musician who thought opera was worthless. Perhaps it is my weakness but I love it, not exclusively, but passionately. And that is why I am sad that there is such confusion, pretentiousness and fakery in the form today. I recently had occasion to listen to music by Carter and Feldman, what a relief that was! But would I want to be without opera? It is a dilemma and maybe I should shut up.


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  2. I prefer Mario in live performance where I find him giving generally more nuanced, sometimes even verging on subtle, interpretations. I do find his Dick Johnson on the Decca set with Tebaldi to be extremely successful, however.

    How nice to find someone who appreciates Gabriella Tucci. I heard her live in a ton of Verdi, the three major Puccinis, Mozart, Gluck and Gounod. I've never seen an Alice Ford who sang the part so well and conveyed enjoyment in singing the role to the extend she did. A truly lovely artist.

  3. Thanks, Will. I love that Decca Fanciulla, too, Mario, and as she was called, "Big Renata" are perfectly cast, and there's a strong supporting cast too. I think a healthy number of the live recordings are better because the mike is perforce more distant and one can grasp (as far as possible in an audio only medium) the impact of tone and personality. I don't know that subtle or precise are Mario words but the temperament and intensity do work and are required in some of the roles-- the Don Alvaro with Mitropoulos for example, or that Dick Johnson with Mitropoulos and Steber. And frankly, why I understand the (mostly Anglo-Saxon) reviewers who would dismiss his Otello, the style is not lieder. If Mario isn't ideally accurate or "tasteful" (at least occasionally a matter of personal preference) the sound, presence and intensity are there. And the great big house Otellos I've seen, Vickers, McCraken at his best, Atlantov in his prime, all had their issues with accuracy and taste. Perhaps Vinay, who I only saw when young but some of whose recordings I love, gets closer but doesn't have that massive, reliable sound.

    Yes, I adored the now forgotten, but wonderful Tucci. One bad season after nine or so of over work condemned her for a while, until time moved on. But she recently had a birthday, I think 83.

    Thanks for reading.