Monday, 29 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Days Twenty Eight and Twenty Nine: Fabulous Fanciulla

I'm combining days twenty eight and twenty nine of the August Opera Challenge, as both posts concern one of my favourite operas, Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. In response to the first question, 'If you could play any role, what would it be?' I'm going for Minnie. Like any opera fan without an operatic voice, I have fantasies about waking up one morning and discovering I'm actually the best singer on the planet. Given the choice of voice classification, I think I'd opt for dramatic soprano (purely for the theatrical potential) and despite harbouring deep desires to sing a Tosca or a Brunhilde, I think I'd be swayed by the opportunity to mess about with guns and have a stage full of men chanting my (character's) name...

So sticking with the wild west theme, I'm going to choose Fanciulla for the next instalment of the challenge- 'Opera dream cast.' The reason for this is that.... I can't understand why Bryn Terfel has never been asked to sing/agreed to sing Jack Rance. His Scarpia proves that he's already got the unrequited love thing down, and there's no denying that he's got the voice for it (and judging by this picture, he can work the outfit..)

Obviously, I adore Domingo's Dick Johnson, but he's a bit older than Bryn, and I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to alter time and space for this part of the challenge. So who do you call in 2011 when you're in need of a sexy outlaw with a beautiful tenor voice? It can only be Jonas Kaufmann. Seriously, how good would it be if he added Fanciulla to his repertoire?

And given that I'm not likely to have my fantasy of waking up as the world's greatest dramatic soprano fulfilled, I better pick a Minnie. Sticking with the modern vibe, I think I'll go with Eva Maria Westbroek. I love her voice, and was really moved by her performances in Die Walkure and Anna Nicole this year. Eva has mentioned in interviews that Minnie is her favourite role, and I'm sure she wouldn't mind being sandwiched between Bryn and Jonas for the evening. Also, can we do the whole thing at ROH with Tony Pappano in the pit? Thanks.

 And now for some music...

Saturday, 27 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty Seven: First Favourite Opera

Without hesitation, my pick for first favourite opera is Verdi's La Traviata. It was the first opera I saw in full- first on film, and then when Scottish Opera came to the Bradford Alhambra. I can't remember much about the Scottish Opera production, but Zeffirelli's film, which I watched with my parents in the late eighties, has always stuck with me. It was my first experience of Domingo, and my first exposure to the wonderful glamour and drama of opera. When I hear the haunting opening chords of the overture today, I am immediately taken back to my childhood and that magical moment when my obsession began.

There are so many amazing La Traviatas out there, from the sumptuous Richard Eyre production to the more modern Willy Decker that premiered at Salzburg, but it was the almost obscenely glamorous Zeffirelli film that started everything for me. It turned me into an opera fan from a ridiculously young age, and of course ensured that no romantic hero would ever quite live up to the Domingo standard. I've chosen a very depressing picture, so let's raise a glass and hum along to the Brindisi.

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty Six: Least Favourite Opera Misconception

My least favourite opera misconception? No, it's not about fat ladies in horned helmets. It's the creation of the common misconception that opera is all about screetchy posturing through the mass marketing of third rate singers who don't actually perform in operas. The misconception often leads to opera/classical novices asking me things like "So you're into opera- do you like Katherine Jenkins?" KJ is obviously not the only offender, but she might be the worst.

Oh, and it's not just restricted to singers anymore:

And no, you don't get a Youtube clip today. It's too painful.

Friday, 26 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty Five: Opera You Would Sell A Kiidney To See

A year ago I was actually trying to sell a kidney (as well as my soul) to see the ROH Pappano-conducted Tosca with Kaufmann, Gheorghiu and Terfel. Luckily, all it took in the end was a combined twenty eight hours of queueing and I got to see both performances with all of my vital organs still intact. Now that's all over, I'm back to wishing Mephistopheles would pop up and exachange my soul for a ticket to La Scala's upcoming Don Giovanni. From the 7th of December to the 14th of January the world's most famous opera house are staging one of my favourite operas. Daniel Barenboim and Heinz Steffens are conducting, and the casting is amazing.

Sadly, Elina Garnaca won't be singing Donna Elvira any more because of her pregnancy, but the rest of the performers and their alternates are still worth the sacrifice:

Don Giovanni- Peter Mattei, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
Leporello- Bryn Terfel, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
Donna Anna- Anna Netrebko, Tamar Iveri
Donna Elvira- Barbara Frittoli, Maria Agresta
Don Ottavio- Giuseppe Filianoti, John Osborn
Zerlina- Anna Prohaska, Ekaterina Sadovnikova
Masetto- Stefan Kocan, Kostas Smoriginas
Il Commendatore- Kwangchul Youn, Alexander Tsymbalyuk

I won't be getting anywhere near Milan this year (or next) so my only hope of witnessing this piece of opera heaven is to see a cinema broadcast on the 7th of December, but according to the Opera in Cinema website, there aren't any scheduled UK broadcasts (yet?) Until all becomes clear, I'll just have to play Bryn singing Guardate!- Madamina, il catalogo e questo over and over again...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty Four: Best Opera To See Alone

I don't mind going to the opera alone. Quite often, when I take people with me who don't share my love of it, I find myself getting nervous or apologising for less than amazing performances. This year, I saw the British premiere of Weinberg's The Portrait alone. I was glad no one had come with me- from the moment it started, I knew that nobody I knew would have enjoyed it, and I would have been sitting there worrying about how lost and bored they felt, rather than becoming immersed in the music and the drama myself. The last year has been quite dominated by Wagner, and I've dragged my parents along to a few performances, but I've come to realise that any future performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen might best be enjoyed solo.

Wagner isn't everybody's cup of tea. I don't think that, as a rule, his works are great for opera beginners. Italian opera was the background music to my childhood, and it took me some time to get used to the different sounds and structures of his operas. Once I did, I fell in love and have had some seriously sublime experiences listening to and watching Wagner operas, but I think I might be done exposing others to him. On my father's birthday I took him to Opera North's concert performance of Das Rheingold. He likes listening to Wagner, but the long interval-free performance in the crowded, almost tropical Leeds Town Hall nearly resulted in him passing out, and I sat there feeling terribly guilty.

Having someone beside you that you've dragged along and feel responsible for does alter your experience of the opera, and sometimes it's better just to admit that not everyone finds a five-hour performance in high German particularly easy going. From now on, I think I'll go alone and lose myself in the music without having to worry about anybody else. I don't need anyone sighing, yawning or sleeping through one of my favourite pieces from any opera ever- Wotan's Farewell from Die Walkure.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty Three: Best Opera To See With A Lover

For the first time in the August Opera Challenge, I'm completely at a loss. There are so many operas full of romance and passion, but not many of them end that well. The only operas I have been on dates to are Verdi's La Traviata and Wagner's Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg. I suppose it depends what kind of atmosphere you're looking for, but neither of those are exactly ideal- La Traviata is a real heartbreaker, and Die Meistersinger is many hours long. The way I see it, you have two choices- something light hearted and lovely (Le nozze di Figaro?) or something along the lines of La Traviata (full of sexy passion but with a very unhappy ending). I'm sort of edging towards the latter, because at least you'll get to experience some really intense, romantic music and a poetic libretto, even if you do need a hanky at the end.

So Puccini's La Boheme. One of the world's most popular operas. It's very accessible, so if your companion isn't an experienced opera attendee then they'll still enjoy it, and it's definitely full of passion (has any composer written about love better than Puccini?) If it's a first date, then you'll relate well to Mimi and Rodolfo, although apart from the initial magic between them, you probably shouldn't take too much inspiration from their love story. If you're as skint as they are, you could just stay in and watch the wonderful film featuring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. And the best bit? If you realise by the glorious O soave fanciulla that what you feel for the person sitting next to you doesn't come close to what's emanating from the stage, at least you've saved yourself a whole lot of heartache...

Monday, 22 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty Two: Best Opera To See With A Friend

I haven't seen a lot of opera with friends, because most of them aren't that into it. After one of my closest pals decided to go and see The Tsar's Bride at the Royal Opera House, I took her to see the Royal College of Music's Cosi Fan Tutte, which I think she enjoyed. I have a male friend I've known since university who came to Welsh National Opera's The Magic Flute with me and more recently to Jonathan Dove's new opera Mansfield Park, but on the whole, my friends are opera sceptics and opera virgins. That's why I was quite surprised when a few people I know who 'don't do opera' confessed to me that they'd watched (and enjoyed) Anna Nicole when the Royal Opera House production was broadcast on BBC4 earlier this year.

I would have loved to have gone to ROH to see Anna Nicole in the flesh- I considered it, and thought of buying a friend of mine a ticket to come with me, but in the end I settled for watching it on television and sort of regretted it. I had expected to like it (I'm not precious about opera and am offended by very little) but I hadn't expected to love it as much as I did. I was so entertained and so moved in places (the scene where Anna has lost her son and climbs into a body bag had me sobbing) and the performances from Eva Maria Westbroek, Gerald Finley and the rest of the cast were amazing. The music was really special too- I really liked the jazz elements that Turnage worked into the score, and I thought the way it went right back to the origins of opera with a Greek Tragedy style chorus was so clever.

I guess my friends liked Anna Nicole because it was modern- a story that they were familar with, sung in a language they could understand. The pink, sparkly look of the whole thing was very visually stimualting, and I think that although it annoyed a lot of ROH stalwarts, it showed a lot of opera newbies that the art form isn't stale and boring, but constantly evolving and telling stories relevant to them.

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty One: Most Listened To Opera

Without a doubt, my most listened to opera is Puccini's Tosca. It is one of the first operas I got to know, and has remained a strong favourite for more than twenty years. Even when I was living away from home without my CD collection, I picked up the 1976 Sir Colin Davis recording ( Carreras, Caballe, Wixell) for a bargain price and played it constantly. The recording I listen to the most today is Victor de Sabata's recording with Callas, di Stefano and Gobbi, but I'm also big on dvds. There are so many great productions out there, but I think the one I enjoy the most is the Zubin Mehta conducted production from 1993, which took place in the real Roman locations in as close to real time as possible. It featured Catherine Malfitano, Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi.

There are lots of reasons why Tosca is my favourite and most listened to opera- I love the drama and the strong emotions and I find all of the characters extremely compelling. Because there are just three key roles, the plot is very easy to become involved in, and the twists and turns keep you on the edge of your seat, even if you've seen the opera many times before. Most importantly, it features some of the most gorgeous and affecting music I've ever heard- the way Puccini merges all the real sounds of Rome into the score is so clever and lends Tosca a sense of realism that you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. So much of what you hear doesn't even require the suspension of disbelief- the choir are singing a Te Deum in church because that's what choirs do, the shepherd song at dawn is to be expected and the bells that ring out are exactly what you'd hear if you vistied Rome. OK, not everyone condemned to death is going to spontaneously start singing E lucevan le stelle, but it is still, after all, an opera...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twenty: Most Powerful Aria

Tre sbirri, una carozza. I just have to hear those few words and I come over all faint. There was no question that Scarpia's Te Deum from Puccini's Tosca would be my nomination for 'Most Powerful Aria.' It's probably my most favourite aria ever, to be honest. I'm a sucker for anything dramatic and powerful, and this heady mixture of sex and religion always has me reaching for a fan....

Picture the scene. Baron Scarpia, Chief of Police, could have pretty much anything he wants- 'E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!' Tosca says ('All Rome trembled before him!') but it's not enough. He desires Floria Tosca, girlfriend of the revolutionary artist Mario Cavaradossi, and he's determined to go to any lengths to get his hands on her. Having already planted the seed of jealousy in Tosca's mind (he convinces her that Cavaradossi is having an affair with the Marchessa Attavanti) he is left alone in The Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle. Through this aria, he lays out the rest of his plans for Tosca and Cavaradossi ('One to the gallows, the other in my arms!') and his unrequited passion for the opera singer spills over into his religious zeal. He sings  'Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!' ('Tosca, you make me forget God!') before joinging in the Te Deum of the chorus, who have now entered to begin the prayer.

I have mixed feelings about Scarpia. I know he would be high up on most people's list of operatic villains, but I have to admit to being a little stirred by the power of his sexual attraction to Tosca, and the fact that he's prepared to do anything to have her 'Caught in (his) arms, smouldering with love!' (I know, I know- he would have cast her aside as soon as he'd conquered her...) He's a very compelling character, though- what drives the anger, the lust and the religious fervour, and how to portray a role as complex as this?

There are so many great Scarpia's out there. There's the cold and calculated, the raw animal, and everything in between. I was brought up on Ruggero Raimondi. I love Tito Gobbi. But I adore Bryn Terfel. His delivery of the lines about Tosca smoulder with sensuality, and there's a power to his performance that comes from his acting talent as much as his size. Seeing him perform this aria twice at the Royal Opera House in July was a dream come true, but until clips of that performance become available, we'll have to make do with this.

August Opera Challenge Day Nineteen: Most Visually Entertaining Opera

And now for something completely unexpected- I'm going for Jules Massanet's Cendrillon, specifically the Laurent Pelly production which recently came to the Royal Opera House starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role and Alice Coote as Prince Charmont. I booked to see the opera because I was in London for the two star-studded Toscas and was unable to resist the opportunity to see DiDonato as well. It was a matinee performance, it was chucking it down outside, and Cendrillon was a little bit like walking into a Christmassy wonderland in the middle of a rainy July.

The opera follows the Cinderella story that we're all very familar with, and lends itself perfectly to a spectacular production design. Fiction and reality are blurred with the words of the story enscribed on the walls, and there's a moment when Cendrillon asks if everything she has experienced has been a dream and I wondered if that was going to be the twist. I loved the contrasting colours (pale pastels that twinkle for Cendrillon, regal reds in the royal court) the half-human horses and most of all the wonderful choreography by Laura Scozzi. The moves of the cast had me laughing out loud, and at times it had the feel of a very elegant and sophisticated pantomime (with the addition of some gorgeous music). If the BBC televise this at Christmas (which I'm not sure that they have any plans to do) it will be a lovely treat.

I had never seen a Laurent Pelly production before, but I was absolutely enchanted and would love to experience more of his work, although I suppose it helped that the opera itself was so full of glamour and magic. The matinee I saw was the last performance of the production at the Royal Opera House. That night, I was back in the all-night queue for day tickets for the Sunday Tosca, and during the early hours of the morning, I went on a fruitless search for coffee. As I was walking past the front of the Royal Opera House, I saw the beautiful golden gates featured in the production, folded up and leaning against the glass, ready for transport. I suppose it could have broken the spell, but they were just as impressive close up, and I felt like I'd had a sneaky little nosey at the set. Here's a clip of Joyce taling about Cendrillon on BBC Breakfast, which features a little clip of the dress rehearsal.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Days Seventeen and Eighteen: Happiest Romance and Most Tragic Romance

Bit of a hiccough yesterday- I was busy as a bee and unable to post, but now I'm back with a double helping of the August Opera Challenge, and it's all about romance... Firstly, I'm nominating Papageno and Papagena from Mozart's Die Zauberflote as opera's happiest romance. I've always loved the characters and their duet is one of the sweetest and funniest pieces of music in the whole repertoire, but my affection for them was strengthened on a visit to Welsh National Opera last year for a production of The Magic Flute. The famous duet brought a tear to me eye, which I think had a lot to do with the staging- when they discussed their future offspring, lots of little babies popped up from holes in the stage and I got a bit overwhelmed... but this clip from the Royal Opera House's production starring Simon Keenlyside and Ailish Tynan is just as lovely. And Simon has a duck on his head. Excellent.

Moving on to something a bit less joyous, I'm nominating Siegmund and Sieglinde from Wagner's Die Walkure as opera's most tragic romance. I can't believe I've got to day eighteen without choosing any Wagner- how has that happened? Die Walkure is one of my favourite operas (maybe my second favourite after Tosca) and it's hard not to get emotionally attached to the Walsung twins and their plight- I mean, she finds him after all those years, gets pregnant and then has to watch him die on the orders of their own father. Obviously by this point you've completely forgotten about the incest... Here's Placido Domingo and Waultrud Meier in the roles in Madrid in 2003.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Sixteen: Favourite Couple

This was a surprisingly easy choice, as most of opera's great romances are seriously flawed. I adore Tosca, but she's jealous and needy, and he has a penchant for hiding dissidents in his garden with disasterous consequences. Voglieteme bene is one of my favourite love duets in the entire repertoire, but let's face it, Pinkerton's motives are extremely questionable. And I think it's best that I don't even go near any Wagnerian love affairs! When I need cheering up, I ususally reach for some Mozart, and Figaro and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro always make me smile.

There are a few little mix-ups throughout the course of the action (jealousy gets the better of them both at times) but Figaro and Susanna remain one of the most delightful pairings in all opera. Despite his boss (Count Almaviva) and mother (Marcellina) both attempting to put obstacles in the way of their marriage, they remain true to each other and everything works out happily in the end. I love all the possibilities for great humour, genuine affection and sexual chemistry between them, and Cinque, dieci, venti, trenta which begins Act I is one of my all-time favourite duets.

I find the idea behind Cinque so clever- it introduces the audience to these two principal characters and the nature of their relationship, but at the same time draws perceptively on the comedic differences between men and women (she wants him to look at her in the veil she's made for their impending nuptials, he's far more concerned with measuring up for their new bed..) It has its gorgeous romantic parts, but lots of comedy too and moves effortlessly into their first (very humorous) little domestic. I adore the amazing Jonathan Miller production for the Met (which in 1998 featured Bryn Terfel and Cecilia Bartoli as the love birds) but I can't resist posting a clip with Bryn and Dorothea Roschmann in the roles in Salzburg in 1995. Basically this is because I'd like to live in a box with Bryn Terfel. Lucky Dorothea.

Monday, 15 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Fifteen: Favourite Tragic Role

I'm not approaching this academically and providing you with an operatic role embodying all the technical elements of a tragic protagonist (no Macbeth, Hamlet or Otello today..) Instead, I'm simply opting for the character I feel the most sympathy towards- Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Verdi's Otello, there are certain operas I am tempted to watch with my hands in front of my eyes and Carmen is a bit like that, as I find the way that the good-hearted Don Jose is dragged into the feral Carmen's clutches (only to have his life destroyed by her) utterly heartbreaking. Even if he does end up murdering her.

Last Christmas I finally got round to reading Prosper Merimee's novella on which Bizet's opera is based and was bowled over by the desperate situation that Jose Lizarrabengoa (the original Don Jose) gets himself into. OK, he isn't whiter than white like Bizet's doomed hero (Lizarrabengoa has killed a man before even meeting the famous gypsy) but he does get entangled in her web, is forced to become an outlaw and ends up handing himself in to face execution after stabbing her.

But what is it that draws Carmen to the ill-fated soldier, and what attributes make the perfect Don Jose? You have to wonder if she's out for a bit of sport, or if there's a serious sexual dynamic to the whole thing. I think there should be a frisson of something real between the two of them, but Carmen's obviously a girl who likes a bit of a challenge, so maybe it doesn't matter if he's wearing the grey cardigan that Opera North put Peter Auty in for their new production of the opera last season, or the National Health issue spectacles Jonas Kaufmann sported in the role in Zurich in 2008.

I think I want to see an essentially good man unable to resist the temptation, blinded by the gypsy spell and with an increasing air of sadness as things start to go a bit wrong. I want to feel heartbroken that control and reason are sliding away from him, and to cry when he sings Le fleur que tu m'avais jetee. And when JK sings it, I really do. Could he be the best Don Jose of all time? When I first saw him sing the aria in a recording of the 2006 Royal Opera House production, he really took my breath away.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Fourteen: Favourite Comedic Role

I'm laughing just thinking about it. Falstaff in Verdi's opera of the same name. I suppose it's Shakespeare who is the comedy genius behind the larger than life Sir John, but I'm so glad that for his last ever opera, Verdi abandoned the more tragic Shakespeare plays and created something so hilarious. Just look at the guy's face. You're laughing, aren't you? And I haven't even said anything about the opera yet!

Now despite the fact that Falstaff is a pretty selfish character whose greediness seems to know no bounds, Verdi's opera always makes me feel a strong amount of sympathy for him and unlike most people, I find myself laughing with Falstaff, not at him. It may be due to the fact that, having already been hidden in a laundry basket and thrown into a ditch, the extra punishments in Windsor Park seem a bit unfair. But it probably has more to do with the joyous music and characterisation. It's hard to resist (and even harder not to agree with) Tutto el mondo e burla...Tutta gabbati! and even though it's much more difficult to agree with the sentiments expressed in L'onori! Ladri! Voi state ligi all'onor vostro voi! it has got to be one of the most hilarious arias from any opera, ever. Witness Bryn Terfel (who else) singing it at the 2008 BBC Proms with characteristic zeal...

Saturday, 13 August 2011

August Opera Day Thirteen: Best Opera All Round

Without a doubt, it's Puccini's Tosca. The popular masterpiece, which GP based on a play by the French writer Victorien Sardou, was premiered in 1900 and tells the story of Floria Tosca, an opera singer whose romance with a revolutionary painter comes to a bloody end when political upheaval and a fair bit of sadism get in the way. With both the music and action providing drama, passion, politics and violence, it has everything I need for a good night out at the opera...

For me, there's never a dull moment. I first fell in love with it when I was pretty small- my mother, who adores Pavarotti, used to play a lot of his records and I was always deeply moved by E lucevan le stelle- even before I had any clue about the plot. My first experience of the whole opera was on video (also Pavarotti) and I quickly became obsessed with seeing different productions. The 1993 Zubin Mehta conducted real-time version is a real favourite (Domingo is so heartbreaking as Cavaradossi) and I have, of course, watched the development of Bryn Terfel's Scarpia with interest.

It's hard to find a recording or dvd with the perfect combination of singers (Nicholas Lehnoff's Amsterdam production may have featured Bryn's role debut, but Catherine Malfitano looked old enough to be his mother and Richard Margison looked like... well, watch it for yourself and see) but the recent Royal Opera House two night extravaganza with Gheorghiu, Kaufmann and Terfel was a life changing experience for me. I wasn't previously a big fan of Ange, but her real-life similarity to Tosca makes her a good fit for the role and Bryn and Jonas were AMAZING. I doubt I'll ever witness a better Tosca in the flesh.

We don't have Bryn's Scarpia on record (yet) and it's hard to beat the combination of Maria Callas, Guiseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi. Act II is always my favourite part of the opera- I find the tussle between Tosca and Scarpia utterly compelling, and who doesn't sit on the edge of their seat waiting for Cavardossi's 'Vittoria, Vittoria!'? There isn't a full video recording of Callas as Tosca, but there's a grainy black and white Act II from Covent Garden in 1964 and it's an absolute must see.

Friday, 12 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Twelve: Best Libretto

Cheat alert. I'm not actually choosing an opera for 'Best Libretto,' but an actual librettist. As soon as I saw that this question was going to come up, I knew it would be too difficult to pick a favourite from Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni, so given that the librettos for all of these Mozart operas were written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, can I just have them all? Thanks.

Da Ponte wrote twenty-eight librettos for various composers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but his three collaborations with Mozart are the operas he is best known for. I think it is the collaborative effort that makes them truly special- the sparkling wit of the words meeting the sparkling music. There are so many stand out arias, duets etc from these three works. There are those that will make you laugh (Guardate!- Madamina, il catalogo e questo from Don G) and those that will make you weep (Dove Sono i bei momenti from Figaro) but I'm picking something that sort of does both, with a big helping of sex appeal on the side- Il core vi dono from Cosi fan tutte.

I absolutely love this duet between Dorabella and her lover's best friend Guglielmo, who is disguised as a mysterious Albanian gentleman in the hope of tricking her into cheating on her man (thus proving that no woman can stay faithful.) It's at this point in the opera that you realise that the ruse may be falling apart and a bit of a love square begins to form. Da Ponte's clever lyrics invite a certain degree of intimacy between the performers, and have led to some seriously sexy performances of Il core vi dono over the years (I can hardly bring myself to listen to Bryn and Cecilia's very breathy interpretation on their Duets album...) but I'm picking the Nicolas Hytner Glyndebourne production from 2006, in which Luca Pisaroni and Anke Vondung get up close and personal. 'Oh, cambio felice di cori e d'affetti!'

Thursday, 11 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Eleven: Best Tragic Opera

There are so many operas that end in tragedy, so it's really been quite hard to choose. As different works have floated into my head as being possible subjects for this post, I've tried to concentrate on how the music of each really makes me feel, and I think that it was one particular aria from Verdi's Otello that really swung it for me- Desdemona's Ave Maria. That's not to say that it's the only part of the opera that affects me deeply, but it's definitely the part at which you realise there's no way out for her, or for him. 

Otello's based on one of the most famous tragic plays ever written, and with music by the master of the dramatic, how could you not be moved? It's one of those operas that I'm always tempted to watch with my hands over my eyes. Even though I know how it's going to end, I always want to yell out and tell Otello what's going on before everything gets out of control and he ends up murdering his wife. But of course, that wouldn't be the done thing...It tends to take me some time to recover after it's all over, and that's how it should be with a tragic opera. You need to be utterly devastated or something somewhere has gone a bit wrong. 

I couldn't not have a picture of Domingo as Otello- I adore him and it's one of his career defining roles, but I'm choosing Maria Callas singing the Ave Maria. I think it's the knowledge you have of what is going to happen to Desdemona that makes this aria unbearably sad, and the music itself is simply stunning- one of my favourite things composed by Verdi. Lots of sopranos sing it beautifully, but the depth of Callas's voice and that characteristic tremble really add to the heartbreaking sadness, and as always, she brings the part to life without us even needing to see her. Sob.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Ten: Best Comedy Opera

I was tempted to choose Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, but really, when you think of the words 'comedy opera', it's Rossini that springs to mind. I'm picking his Il barbiere di Siviglia, the archetypal opera buffa, in which the young Count Almaviva disguises himself as a poor student named Lindoro to win the affections of the beautiful Rosina, who is kept prisoner by her guardian Dr. Bartolo. With the help of Figaro (his former servant) and by way of some very silly japes, he pulls it off and they all live happily ever after.

It's pretty much a laugh a minute, but I'm not just talking about the plot. Rossini's instantly recognisable tunes have the ability to make you chuckle as much as the libretto or the action that is taking place on stage do. Take the overture for example. It begins conventionally enough before moving into that very famous dramatic flourish, but by the half way point I always find it hard to suppress a giggle. His musical turn of phrase sounds almost sarcastic to me at times, and if you're inclined to have a bit of a dance to operatic overtures (and I'm not saying I am, honestly...) then you will be hard pressed not to bust a move that looks specifically designed to make others laugh. And what about Largo al factotum- surely one of the most hilarious arias of all time? And how can you not crack a smile at Una voce poco fa? I'm going for Dunque io son, though. It's one of my favourite operatic duets, and it gives me the opportunity to watch lovely Joyce DiDonato pair up with Pietro Spagnoli, who is one of my favourite singers and should, in my opinion, be a lot more famous than he is.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Nine: Best Conductor

How could anyone not love Antonio Pappano? I desperately want Intermezzo to market t-shirts with her 'We ❤ Pappano' logo emblazoned across the front of them so I can declare my adoration for the diminutive maestro to the world on a daily basis. OK, maybe not on a daily basis, but you catch my drift. 

It may seem like choosing Tony P for the 'Best Conductor' post of the August Opera Challenge is a bit obvious. Since his Opera Italia documentary for the BBC last summer, he's been popping up absolutely everywhere, and is quickly becoming the closest thing to a 'household name operatic conductor' that we're likely to see. But that's exactly why I'm jumping on the bandwagon- has anyone else done more in recent history to turn people on to opera, and isn't an engaging, communactive face of the Royal Opera House exactly what's needed in today's climate of empty purses and ubiquitous TV talent shows? 

Of course it's not just the (very lovely) public face that attracts me. It's the music. Oh God, the music. If you've ever seen a bloke waving a baton at the front of an orchestra and wondered what the point of his presence there actually is, get hold of a recording Pappano has made, and then get a recording of the same piece conducted by someone else and have a listen. Now I'm not saying the non-Pappano disc will be worse, but I shouldn't imagine it will make you jump out of your skin in quite the same way. 

Of course, this is not a positive experience for everyone. Although she liked Tony's Pergolesi Stabat Mater, Anna Picard in the Independent noted that it would "have the style police reaching for the smelling salts" and on more than one occasion I've heard him being accused of over-egging the pudding. But I quite like my pudding over-egged, and being smacked about the head so hard by a Stabat Mater or a Requiem that you have to reach for the smelling salts is definitely my idea of a good time. 

I've actually had a pretty good Pappano year. I saw him conduct Respighi with the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in February, which was absolutely mind blowing. Just as mind blowing was getting my CDs signed post-concert. I even shook the hand that waves the baton (squidgy, well manicured) then in July I saw him conduct three times in four days (Tosca, William Tell, Tosca) which I heartily recommend if you need any cobwebs blowing away. Talking of blowing away cobwebs, have you heard his Verdi Requiem? I'm picking a clip about the making of it, so that I can include both his sensational conducting and sensational chat. Just ignore Rolando talking about ambulances. 

Monday, 8 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Eight: Best Bass/Bass-Baritone

I know you knew it was coming. You were probably wondering how long I could cope in a challenge such as this without penning an ode to Bryn. I really had no choice but to last out for eight days, but now I see the words 'Best Bass/Bass-Baritone' in front of me, and I am breathing a big sigh of relief. The truth is that no matter how much I gush about Placido, Callas and Cecilia Bartoli, there is one voice that I would always choose above all others and that voice is Bryn Terfel's. On the proverbial desert island, a recording by BT is the one I would save, and it's extremely rare for me to get through a day without listening to him sing something. Or indeed many things. This is the voice that has made me laugh very loudly on public transport (Falstaff) led me to queue outside the Royal Opera House for a combined twenty-eight hours (Tosca) and has frequently resulted in tears running down my face when I've least expected them to. 

The whole thing was pretty unexpected, to be honest. A mystery voice that drifted across the radio waves and literally floored me. Well, not literally. I crawled onto the bed and listened in silence, and had this sort of (corny) magical moment that I'll never forget, with the evening sun streaming into the room and my heart feeling like it had completely stopped beating. Love at first listen. And do you know what? It wasn't even anything remotely operatic. It was, of all things, Shenandoah. I knew right away that it was the voice for me. Weighty and powerful but with the ability to move into perfect lullaby-like lyrical softness. Full of character and clever intonation. A timbre that is rich and warm and deeply, deeply chocolatey. And I mean the kind of chocolate that has 70% cocoa solids and just enough cream to result in a serious sensory experience. I should stop with this description now, shouldn't I?

Of course after that, I sought out everything. What a delight to discover a voice that makes you feel like that, and then realise the person it belongs to is also a wonderful, humorous, sensitive performer. I can honestly say that I've never been disappointed by anything I've seen or heard Bryn do. Even when directors and designers get him to perform in the most outrageous of productions (Dulcamara Elvis? Falstaff the rooster? Mephistopheles in a dress?) I am delighted and charmed. Let's face it, I'm a tad in love. But we'll save that for a later August Opera Challenge post...

I think everyone I know curses the moment I fell for BT. There are days when people don't think that his interpretation of English folk songs go with an early morning cup of tea. Or that Bad Boys is the perfect soundtrack for driving to the supermarket. Or that opening a bottle of wine and turning up Wagner Arias is the best way to spend a Saturday evening. Is this the reason people pretend fuses have gone and batteries have died?

I guess that Bryn will make more appearances in the August Opera Challenge than anyobody else. I can forsee a lot of my favourite Terfel moments coming up in other posts, so I wanted to choose my YouTube clip wisely and not pick something from an opera that's going to make five other appearances. I think Sono lo spirito che nega from Boito's Mefistofole fits the bill perfectly as the opera is unlikely to pop up in another post, it's something Bryn has been singing a lot at concerts and recitals recently, and it is the perfect vehicle for his dramatic as well as vocal talents. This is SUCH a charismatic and strong performance from the Bad Boys tour. Enjoy!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Seven: Best Baritone

I recently had a pleasant little chat with a lighting guy from the Royal Opera House, who informed me that during Simon Keenlyside's performances in the title role of Don Giovanni, he had been asked to direct the lights in order to make SK look as naked as possible. "My job was basically to light Simon's bits," he laughed, as I tried to prevent myself from fainting on the pavement. I'm supposed to be talking about singing, aren't I? I know, I know. Gosh.

I don't even know when or where I first heard Simon Keenlyside (please note that I didn't write 'see Simon Keenlyside' as I'm trying to be serious now...) but he possesses a voice that, for me, always seems so full of intelligence and emotional depth. It's what you would expect from opera's most prominent zoologist. Add to this the aforementioned physical attributes, and what you've got is opera magic. As I write this, I'm listening to him singing with Natalie Dessay in the Met production of Thomas's Hamlet and my heart is just twisting itself into knots. I know he isn't everyone's cup of tea. I recently met a lovely lady who told me that for her, he isn't an actor and doesn't move his face enough, but I seem to witness something entirely different. He's in that class of opera singer who can really make me feel something, and I laugh at his Papageno in Mozart's Die Zauberflote as much as I cry at his Rodrigo in Verdi's Don Carlo. But his Hamlet is really fantastic. I'm going to pick a bit with Jennifer Larmore's Gertrude, because he moves his face. A lot. So there.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Six: Best Tenor

If we were talking specifically about a tenor for my generation of opera-goers, then my choice would certainly be Jonas Kaufmann, but given that the title of this challenge is simply 'Best Tenor', I will have to go for Placido Domingo. Since starting to write this blog and delving into the opera community on Twitter, I've spoken to and met some genuine Placido superfans. People who know every detail there is to know and have followed him all over the world. I'm certainly envious of them (especially those that have seen him sing some of his greatest roles in the greatest productions in the greatest opera houses) but I can't claim to be that sort of fan. I guess relatively speaking, I'm too young to have trotted all over the globe for him, and having been a student until quite recently, I've never had the financial means. I do love him, though. And in many ways, he was my introduction to opera.

I feel like I've told the story of my seeing Zeffirelli's film of La Traviata when I was a little girl again and again (I've certainly told it on this blog before) so I won't bore you with the details, but the upshot was I fell for him in a big way. I bought a Domingo recording. It was the first record (of any description) that I'd ever bought, and it started something serious. Maybe it was even a bit detrimental to my love of opera, as there's this little bit of me that only ever feels like a tenor role is sung properly when it's PD singing it. I breathe a little sigh of relief when I hear that gorgeous voice. And it is just one of the most gorgeous voices that there has ever been. OK. Let's not gush too much. But what to pick? We'll probably have some La Traviata later on in the August Opera Challenge. And some Fanciulla. And some Otello. And there will definitely be some Tosca. Puccini's Manon Lescaut? Yes. Let's have some Manon Lescaut. And what else but the love duet? Sigh.

Friday, 5 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Five: Best Alto/Contralto

Several years ago when I was living far from home, my mother sent me an audio documentary about the founding of Glyndebourne narrated by Ralph Fiennes. It was my general interest in opera and my fondness for Fiennes that led her to send it, but she'd stuck a little post-it note on the CD cover which said 'I love Kathleen Ferrier's voice.' I'm ashamed to say that I had no idea who she was, but through that documentary I heard her beautiful, deep, rich-toned contralto for the first time and learned a little bit about her life and singing career.

I have a theory that our favourite singers (well, certainly mine) do not always become so dear because of musical perfection alone. Often, there are memories and experiences linked to the first time we heard their voice drift out of a speaker, or the first time we saw them perform on stage. With Ferrier, I guess it added to the magic that I was miles away from friends and family, and it was comforting to get a recommendation from home that proved to be so wonderful. Her voice seems to be connected to a lot of lovely moments for me- last year a friend of mine was driving us back from an amazing performance at Welsh National Opera when her crackly, atmospheric performance of  'What is life to me without thee?' from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice came on the radio. It filled up the car and the darkness as we drove back from Cardiff, and has stuck in my mind almost as much as the opera we saw.

Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice was one of only two fully staged operatic roles she performed (the other being Lucretia in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia) and although she had a strong association with Glyndebourne and was well recieved at the Royal Opera House, she was thought to be a pretty uncomfortable actress. She died of cancer in 1953 aged just 41, so we'll never know if she could have been persuaded to add more roles to her repertoire. She left behind some beautiful recordings though, among them Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. Recently, German artist Mariele Neudecker produced a visual interpretation of the heartbreaking song cycle consisting of film, sculpture and lots of little walk-in rooms. It was Ferrier's recording that provided the musical backdrop, and when it was exhibited at Opera North's Howard Assembly Room, I found it very moving. So I'll pick the Kindertotenlieder (specifically In diesem Wetter!) even though it's not opera...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Four: Best Mezzo

I've spent a year gushing over Joyce DiDonato, but given that it's only been twelve months since I fell for her, I really have to go for Cecilia Bartoli here because I've adored her since I was a little girl. The more opera fans I speak to, the more I learn that baroque, and even more specifically Cecilia, are not everybody's cup of tea. But I've met a lot of enthusiastic Bartoli devotees at her recitals, and those that get it really get it! I guess that amount of coloratura played out with such originality and character might be a bit off-putting for some, but her voice and technique really grip my heart, and I find myself falling more in love with every note she sings. Yes, I think this might be my one and only girl crush.

Cecilia is a heroine of mine for a lot of reasons. She stands her ground about repertoire that is appropriate for her fairly niche voice, has an academic approach to making records which has produced many world premiere recordings of baroque music, and when she is on the operatic stage, she has an intelligence and sense of humour which bring every character she plays to life. It's present in recitals, too- what can I say about those trademark moves and facial expressions? And how can I describe a voice that plunges such velvetty depths and rises to produce such sparkling, champagne-like coloratura? I've chosen this clip from her Sacrificium project, which explored the art of the castrati. Porpora's Come nave in mezzo allonde is one of my favourite Cecilia arias, and I think this really shows off her magical voice as well as her unique dramatic qualities!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Three: Best Soprano

This choice will probably be viewed as a cliché by some, and there will be others who will tell me that there are more technically perfect sopranos, but I doubt any female singer will ever come close to Callas for me. I adore the dark, dramatic, ravishing depths of her voice and the way that every character she took on from Medea to Violetta was acted so beautifully through the vocal alone. You don't need any visuals when you listen to Callas- every drop of anger, fear, lust and sadness is projected around the room you are sitting in, and for that, I can easily forgive the lack of perfection. Her versatility is also something to be celebrated- which other 20th century soprano could have belted out Wagner on a Monday and turned her hand to a bit of bel canto Bellini on a Tuesday?

By the time she was really famous, her voice no longer had the brilliance of the early years, and there was that infamous little wobble going on (Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano were compared to 'two barking dogs' during their comeback tour in the early 1970s..) but I just don't care. She was a real tragedy queen (sadly off stage as well as on) and no one moves me like Maria. I have so many favourite Callas moments, but I guess there will be plenty of opportunities to force them on you before the August Opera Challenge is over. For now, I'll pick a classic Callas moment- Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma performed in Paris, 1958. They might not be complete precision vocals, but it's a sound that's unmistakably Callas, and just hearing this, never mind looking at that iconic image, makes me feel a teensy bit more stylish.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day Two: Best Composer

For many, this would be a difficult choice, but not for me. My heart belongs to Giacomo Puccini. Some opera fans may accuse GP of creating music that is occasionally a bit on the light side, but I don't care. Or agree. His compositions- which veer from the dramatically intense to the unbelievably beautiful- move me more than I could ever describe. As the great Puccini interpreter Renata Scotto has said, "You cannot keep your eyes dry. You cannot. You have to cry."

The Tuscan composer, who was born in 1858 and had an untimely death from throat cancer in 1924, created some of the most memorable operatic moments of all time (who doesn't recognise Nessun dorma or O mio babbino caro?) Fond of fast cars, hunting and women, Puccini led a life that could have easily formed the basis of an opera. He composed ten of them- Le Villi, Edgar, Manon Lescaut, La boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La fanciulla del West, La rondine, Il trittico (which is comprised of three one act operas) and Turandot, which was left incomplete on his death.

I haven't chosen a particular Puccini favourite, as I predict he will come up in the August Opera Challenge again and again. Instead, here's a clip of Royal Opera House Music Director Antonio Pappano from the Puccini episode of his BBC series Opera Italia. If you want to get started with Puccini, then this documentary is a great way in (you can move on to Mary Phillips-Matz's brilliant biography afterwards!) And of course, Maestro Tony P can sum up it up better than anyone else. "Apart from the colourful biography, there's the music. It is some of the most ravishing, intimate, passionate, sometimes even erotic and clever music ever heard in the theatre. And beyond."

Monday, 1 August 2011

August Opera Challenge Day One: Best Overture

I am in love with so many. The tiny, beautiful strings at the beginning of Verdi's La Traviata that lead into some of the most romantic, recognisable music ever composed, the dramatic evocation of the hunted Siegmund that begins Wagner's Die Walküre and the dark, eerie warnings that float over the prelude to Mozart's Don Giovanni were all contenders, but ultimately it's another of Mozart's overtures that gets my vote- Le Nozze di Figaro.

Composed in 1789 as the opener for his comic opera about a mad day in the life of two love-bird servants in the house of the randy Count Almaviva, it is surely one of the most humorous and spirited pieces of music ever written. By the three minute mark, I'm usually struggling to contain myself and if you're looking for an overture that will really get you excited about the opera to come, then this is definitely the one. I should really use it as my early morning wake up call, as the last time it was played on Classic FM's 'Brighter Breakfast' it put a spring in my step for the rest of the day. Here's a clip of James Levine conducting it for the momentous 1998 Met Production (Terfel, Bartoli, Fleming, DeNiese) that has oddly never materialised on dvd. Anyway, enjoy.....