Friday, November 23, 2007

Solid Singing

Last month, while attending the annual OPERA America conference at the Fairmont Hotel, I was surprised and delighted to hear Alan Stone (the ever-persnickety and perspicacious founder/artistic director of Chicago Opera Theatre) voice a grudge which many in the operatic community have silently nurtured but precious few have had the balls to vent. Stone's bone of contention was that each year, with depressing regularity, OPERA America's membership convenes and spends several days bitching about marketing strategies, fundraising goals, electronic databases, artistic cancellations, board relationships, postal subsidies, publicity problems, minority outreach, union negotiations, educational programs, stage directors, management crises and, when all else fails, the pathetically insufficient levels of funding received from the National Endowment for the Arts.

According to Mr. Stone, no one at these conferences ever talks about singing, anymore!
As a result, I was particularly delighted to hear Stone, Opera San Jose's Irene Dalis, the Greater Miami Opera's Willie Waters, and the National Institute for Music Theatre's John Ludwig lock horns on the thorny issue of just how much America's operatic community is accomplishing in its efforts to train and develop young artists for careers as professional singers. During a meeting of artistic administrators, it became obvious that this delicate subject -- the ongoing care and nurturing of the young American artist -- is of grave concern to those who shoulder the responsibility of recruiting and developing future generations of operatic talent. It is also quite obvious that OPERA America's artistic administrators don't feel as if they have enough of a forum (other than these once-a-year ad hoc meetings) in which to discuss the subject that got them into the opera business in the first place: singing.

While many critics claim that we live in the era of the stage director (and that the stage director's influence unfairly dominates any operatic production) the success of two recent performances depended almost entirely on good singing. That's not to say that the stage director's concept was unimportant to either production -- it's just that when the chips were down, singers -- the performers around whom this art form revolves -- ultimately were the ones who were called upon to deliver the goods. And, when push came to shove, they were able to do so with an impressive amount of professionalism and artistry.


As the Metropolitan Opera gears up for its presentation of three complete Ring cycles in April (using its new production designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, directed by Otto Schenk and conducted by James Levine), the company is taking advantage of its calendar of subscription series performances as a means of putting the finishing touches on all four segments of Wagner's tetralogy (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung). In early October, I attended a performance of Das Rheingold which was one of the more satisfying evenings I had spent at the Met in recent years. With the exception of Hans Sotin's rather scratchy performance as Wotan, the cast was about as close to perfection as one could reasonably hope for.

The women were in particularly fine voice, with Hanna Schwarz offering a robust Fricka, Ellen Shade a powerfully feminine Freia and Birgitta Svenden a portrayal of Erda, the Earth Mother, which was (for once) beautiful in both voice and body. The trio of Rhine maidens (Kaaren Erickson, Diane Kesling and Meredith Parsons) went at their watery prologue with solid musicianship.

Meanwhile, Horst Hiestermann's Mime and Franz Mazura's Alberich dominated the action down in Nibelheim. Upstairs, in Valhalla, strong artistic contributions came from Gregg Baker's Donner, Mark Baker's Froh, John Macurdy's Fasolt and Matti Salminen's Fafner.
The major surprise of the evening was Siegfried Jerusalem's artistic triumph as Loge, the fire god. When last I heard this tenor, he was struggling to find both his pitch and sufficient voice to get through the New Orleans Opera's production of Lohengrin. His Loge at the Met was, by contrast, a superbly realized vocal and dramatic portrayal.

James Levine conducted this performance of Das Rheingold with a keen ear to the dynamics of Wagner's score. The only drawback to the evening, as usual, was Levine's ban on the use of Supertitles (a technological wonder which could probably have kept 25% of the Met's audience awake for the final two hours of the performance).


As long as we're talking about narcolepsy, mention should be made of another sleep-related phenomenon: the recent revival of La Sonnambula by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Because of my travel schedule, I did not get to hear soprano Cecilia Gasdia sing the title role of Bellini's opera. Instead, I caught the final performance, at which Ruth Welting sang Amina.

I'm very glad I did.

Welting hasn't been singing on American stages very much in recent seasons and, as anyone who is in the music business knows, it's largely because of her stand against the backstage goings-on at the Met. Several years ago, after one of her biggest career triumphs, Ms. Welting (who is a born-again Christian) announced that the Metropolitan Opera was "an evil place" and that, after much prayer and soul-searching, she had been convinced that it was wrong for her to sing there anymore.

Although her career continues to thrive in Europe, Welting's absence from the domestic opera scene is a source of great disappointment to those who have always admired her musicianship and delighted in the strength of her high notes. Next season, she is scheduled to sing Ophelia opposite Sherrill Milnes in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In the meantime, her appearance in La Sonnambula confirmed what many have known all along: that this petite soprano is a rock-solid musician whose artistry continues to grow stronger over the years. Boasting high F's for days, Ms. Welting sailed through the difficult coloratura passages of Amina's "Ah, non giunge!" with the ease and clarity of a consummate professional. Matching her in a stunning display of bel canto technique and macho lyricism was tenor Frank Lopardo as Elvino.

Dmitri Kavrakos lent sturdy support as Count Rodolfo while Martha Jane Howe made her presence known as Teresa. Donato Renzetti ruled over musical matters from the pit. Alas, the dramatic conceit which forms the basis of Sandro Sequi's La Sonnambula production (borrowed from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples) is more than mildly ridiculous. But, as anyone will tell you, so is Felice Romani's libretto for Bellini's opera. What is of critical importance in a work like La Sonnambula is the singing and I was thrilled to hear Ruth Welting, Frank Lopardo and Dmitri Kavrakos go about their work in Chicago with the surety and stylistic grace of skilled artists who are practiced professionals.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 5, 1989.

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