Sunday, 20 September 2009

La Finta Gardiniera @The Estates Theatre: Mozart & Dwarves

La Finta Gardiniera was finished when Mozart was only 18 years old. His arguably longest opera, in the old style of a looot of repeating in the arias, can probably be a tad bit... ahem... boring. Not so in the production of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann.

Their more than twenty year old production of this underperformed opera, obviously televised in 1989, leaves little to be desired. Unlike their Clemenza di Tito, which I saw in this theatre two years ago and where they committed many UIF (UnIntentionally Funny) and WTF crimes , this production was very funny in the light Mozartean fashion.

Yes, I was a little worried when it began with a dwarf reciting Heinrich Heine while crawling up from the underground. However, within some twenty minutes, it was clear that it would be a pleasant evening. The Herrmanns' clever and fast-paced direction was (nearly) fully supportive to Mozart's almost Shakespearean comedy. Unlike many "modernized" productions, it was not trying to be "wiser than the author," and the sets offered a basis for many comic gigs. There was no ugliness or violence, so necessarily present in many today's productions. Nothing of the sets was there just pro forma, and even the shy Czech audience (well, at least half were Czech...) found it too difficult to muffle their laughter at times.

From the musical standpoint, there are no complaints on my part. Especially as Prague's opera sweethearts, Kateřina Kněžíková and our barihunk Adam Plachetka, were showing off not only their beautiful voices, but also a great deal of comedy talent. Plachetka can also be seen in Vienna, he had the "luck" of appearing in the fugly Salzburg Rusalka, and in three year's time, he will perform Masetto at Covent Garden. However, most of the cast was international, which opens some questions as to whether there are enough reasonably good Czech singers here. All that under the steady baton of Tomáš Netopil's, the new (and very young) chief-conductor of the National Theatre.

Overall impression: 85%

Adam Plachetka & Kateřina Kněžíková
Photos from their respective official sites.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Interview with Dmitri Hvorostovsky on Vocal Technique

By V.P. Morozov
Original (Russian) here.

- Dmitri Alexandrovich, your name has been on the posters of the most prestigious musical theatres, the press calls you the best baritone of the world, gives many interesting details about your personal life and creative successes, plans, but not a word about vocal technique. I plan to put a page about your voice in the second edition of my book "The Art of the Resonant Singing”, which I gave to you after your triumphant concert at the Great Hall of the Conservatory. Although about you - as an outstanding singer - is high time to write an entire book.

- Thank you. I am interested in vocal literature. I have an entire library about it. But I haven’t had the time to read your book, because my father took it.

- He sings, too?

- Yes, he has a beautiful voice.

- Fine. So you have a voice in the genes, that’s for sure. When did you start singing?

- As far as I can remember, about when I was three.

- And what voice did you have until the breaking?

- Normal, high, most probably soprano.

- Usually sopranos after the breaking transform into low voices.

- But I found a large range with very nice tenor top. My parents say it was a Lemeshev-like timbre.

- And how did you turn out as a baritone?

- When I came to the Krasnoyarsk Conservatory, Ekaterina Constantinovna Yoffel - my teacher - listened to me and said: "You are, without doubt, a baritone" - and led me as a baritone. In the third year I sang full baritone operatic repertoire in the theatre. My middle and lower register became stronger, baritone timbre, but I could not take the tenor top as freely as before.

- Do not regret! If you were a tenor, it is not known whether you would enjoy such a world-wide fame as you do today as the best baritone. After all, look what happens - at a concert in the Great Hall of the Academy the audience cheered you so much that they prompted you to sing an entire block of encores which was not on the program. I was listening to you already standing. But let's talk about the technique.

How do you imagine and feel your voice and its formation in your vocal apparatus, for example resonance?

- I can feel the vibration especially above the eyebrows, between eyebrows, around the nose, this "mask", as you know.

- And the chest resonance? Can you feel the connection of chest and head resonance?

- Chest, shoulders - all resonate. Like a column, resonating from the head, comes into the chest – such a feeling.

- When going to the top, what changes in your feeling of the resonance?

- Nothing in particular changes, because in the entire range and the lowest notes, I try not to lose the feeling of the mask, i.e. the upper resonator, and on the highest notes, to keep the chest resonance. Perhaps in the uppermost notes still noticeably the head sounds more. But in general, on all notes of the range, I use a mixed sound of the head and chest resonators.

- And on the transition notes?

- And on the transition notes - I have this "E" - "E-flat" - a mixed nature of sound, when both the upper and chest resonators sound, helps me to smooth out the registers.

Actually I have a feeling is that with the help of the resonance, it is possible to develop a force of sound that it will drown out the thunder of aircraft engines.

- And have you not tried?

- I have not tried to compete with a plane, but with the acoustics of the hall yes. At 35 years, when I began to sing in the big theatres in Europe and, especially, America, like the Metropolitan, I wanted to make my voice bigger, more powerful. And this is understandable - a huge hall provokes forcing. Your voice goes away from you and doesn’t return and to you it seems that you sing silently and should sing louder. But as a result I began to notice that I lose resonance and the ease of the voice, especially at the top. Yes, and transitional notes dropped a semitone, moved into the bass region - with the "E-flat" to "D".

- Yes, the forcing - the enemy of the resonance. How did you cope with this problem?

- It helped me that in our class – with E.K. Yoffel - we were accustomed to sing in muted acoustics. All the walls there were covered with drapery. You sing in the corridor - everything sounds great, but come to classroom – you can’t recognize your voice. As a result, I learned to sing focusing mainly on my internal feelings - both the resonator and the muscles.

After all, on the stage, especially in the opera, there are all draped sets, you’re wearing some plump costume, a huge hat absorbs all the high singing formant. Therefore, if you will rely solely on your ear, you will certainly force, and you’re ruined. But inner feeling, and in particular - resonator, here’s salvation. The singer has to be sure, - if the voice will be unforced, free and resonant, he does not fear any very "bad" acoustics, the voice will be flying and audible everywhere.

- Fine. Well, and how do you feel your singing breathing?

- The inhaling is short, very short. Yoffel used to say: "Breathe in the smell of a flower" - it definitely helps correct inhalation. But in order to have enough breath, the air consumption must be economical, very economical. This does not mean that you should hold your breath, no. It should be free and not forced on the larynx. The larynx should also be free, not tense, though lowered, as in yawn. This makes the oropharyngeal cavity larger and longer, and that’s good for the voice.

- And do you feel your vocal cords, do you try to manage them, when you sing?

- But for what? I read in Yudin, you probably know, he focuses on the vocal cords. As a student I tried to experiment with these cord sensations of tension and so on, but apart from damage to the voice, I didn’t get anything. We feel, control and regulate the work of breathing and resonators. This is important. But keep track of how your vocal cords work? No, no. It seems to me quite unnecessary.

But with the breathing and resonators we form some habits and then this all goes into the subconscious, in the automatism. And on stage I, of course, both breathe and resonate, as it should be - over that I keep some sort of control - but I think mostly about other things - how do I "paint" with my voice the emotional painting, the image, so that it is seen by each of my listeners.

The process of singing is not just a physical process, but also a psychological process. Therefore, the state of the singer’s soul is very important.

- When one listens and watches you on stage, they see how you show what you sing with all your body.

- This is Yoffel’s school. When I as a student began to unnaturally gesticulate, "help" myself with my hands (laughs), she halted it. And she taught to meaningfully express feelings with voice and behaviour. I am grateful to her. In addition, such natural "movement of the soul" helps as if to relax, to withstand the unnatural strain on the scene. And freedom of the body causes also, by the way, a resonating sound.

- Wonderful. And what are your preferences of other singers?

- How I turned out what I am – 50% of that comes from how much I listened and listen to other singers. I cultivated and cultivate my voice because of this.

- Your ideal? Which singer?

- From ours - it is P.G. Lisitsian - amazing, I mean the beauty of timbre and the vocal technique.

- You know, in the first edition of the book, in the section of computer spectra of the voices of masters of vocal art, I placed your spectra next to Lisitsian’s. So your voice can be compared in the basic parameters of high singing formant.

- Interesting! I will certainly look at it!

V.P. Morozov. The Art of Resonant Singing. M., 2008, pp.459-462
В.П.Морозов. Искусство резонансного пения
Translated by:

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

How I Came to Stop Worrying and Love Organ Music

I knew Toccata et Fuga in D minor - who doesn't? Then I saw this video:

And then I saw this video (Karl Richter playing at the Ottobeuren cathedral):

A Message to Critics

Perhaps this is a futile effort, as few of those whom this post is addressing - the harshest critics, both professional and amateur - are going to take it to heart. However, if a single person thinks again about what he or she writes about performers, it has not been in vain.

From the movie The Great Caruso, starring Mario Lanza (even though the film was highly fictionalized, the part about Caruso being compared to de Reszke and called "bourgeois" is correct, just like [both] de Reszkes' admiration to Caruso):

Not that I am blameless. Sometimes it's a difficult job not to be harsh, when music is your passion, and you hate some of its parts just as much as you love others. But we all should think twice, whether what we are saying or writing is truth, or if it is just a little frustrated musician in us talking.

In Art, few things are objective, and what one person likes, another may not. YouTube seems to be full of all too wise people who know a singer's technique is wrong, how a world star is terrible, or how a conductor's fame is just good PR. These are exactly the people who would criticize Enrico Caruso for not being Jean de Reszke; now they criticize Dmitri Hvorostovsky for not being Lawrence Tibbett, or Renée Fleming for being vulgar.

Artists are extremely sensitive beings, but in this ugly world, they either develop thick skin, or can't do what they love - sing, play, conduct. Everybody who can perform in public in the first place is great, because they are bringing Beauty to our lives. By savaging them, you're betraying the very essence of Art.

Life's too short not to enjoy world's beauty and loose time with what you dislike, or to annoy other people by not respecting their tastes!

Friday, 11 September 2009

Opera Trivia Quiz

A trivia quiz, made by moi :-)

Takes some time to load.

Some questions taken from Regina Opera, one from Discovery Education, two from Patricia Gray's website.

Music used:
1. Renée Fleming - Un bel di vedremo
2. Bryn Terfel & Cecilia Bartoli - Duet Papageno-Papagena
3. Mirella Freni - The Death of Butterfly
4. Mario Lanza - Che gelida manina
5. Hansel und Gretel - Act 1, Scene 1
6. Dmitri Hvorostovsky - Largo al factotum
7. Ellen Hagris - Se tu parti da me
8. Maria Callas - Si, mi chiamano Mimi
9. Anna Netrebko - Quando m'en vo
10. Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Renée Fleming - La ci darem la mano

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

100 Best Classical Recordings

No matter how I think choosing any "top few" in art is a folly, and giving "classical rules" conceited, it's nice to see a Hvorostovsky recording among the opera's top ten in the 100 best classical recordings, according to Igor Toronyi-Lalic, John Allison, and Michael Kennedy:

"7 Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin (conductor Semyon Bychkov) Philips £17.60, RRP £17.99
Russia’s greatest opera, amid strong competition, Tchaikovsky’s 'lyric scenes’ have not been better served on disc than by the idiomatic conducting of Semyon Bychkov and a cast including Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s fresh-voiced Onegin."

It's only a pity that the discussion is not open under that article; I would give the authors a piece of my mind for telling me what to like and what to throw away.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Anna Netrebko's Video Blog

"Each month Anna Netrebko will select a few questions and post short video responses to them here. Submit your questions to Anna by filling out the form on Anna's website."

So far, there are three videos on her channel:

Doesn't Tiago look just like his father? Aren't they sweet together? :-)

Now, if only her Siberian colleague were willing to do something similar...

Wikipedia is joking, right??

"A physically fit male abdomen" in an encyclopedia article o_O

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

How to Become a Successful Opera Director

The Ten Commandments of Opera Directing, by Frufru:

McVicar, who else?

Rule no.1: Shock value is the value!!! Whatever you do, keep this in mind.
Rule no.2: Make a character gay.
Rule no.3: Make a character naked.
Rule no.4: Or both.
Rule no.5: If somebody dies, there should be a loooot of blood. No matter it's considered a mark of second-class horror movies.
Rule no.6: If an opera goer has to read through a manual to get a hint of what you're trying to say, you're on the right track.
Rule no.7: Use as much cliché as you are able to put in. Cliché in an artistic genre is considered to be "innovative approach."
Rule no.8: By ANY means whatsoever, don't get yourself troubled by the libretto or the score. The *story* is the important thing, and it has to be *retold.*
Rule no.9: Fire a soprano or two. Just to gain popularity. You'll always find a reason - too fat, too short, too tall, too bad an actress... doesn't want to undress creative differences...
Rule no.10: If half of the audience are booing and half are cheering you, you've achieved your goal. From now on, you'll be hailed by critics as one of the best opera directors, and DVDs will be sold only because your name is in the credits.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Il Trovatore in London, 2009

As Mostly Opera nicely put it: "So we are supposed to believe that the soprano kills herself to avoid sleeping with this guy? Right..."

I was awaiting a moment when Mr. Hvorostovsky appeared in Europe in a live, un-amplified concert, or in an opera where the baritone role is not too small and where I didn't have to be disgusted by some director's "retelling" of the story. I nearly gasped when I saw that he would appear in London, as il Conte di Luna, with Sondra Radvanovsky and Roberto Alagna, in the somewhat clumsy but traditionalistic and appealing Moshinsky's production.
It was my first visit of London, and of a big, famous opera house, too. I arrived in Covent Garden well before time, as I had intended to walk, but the rain was so heavy that I decided to take a cab. From the phonetic standpoint, the driver was a very nice Cockney guy, the doormen and ushers at ROH spoke "received RP" - the most understandable accent for foreigners - and most of the audience members and cashiers were native RP speakers (the cashier I spoke to when I was picking up the ticket had an especially arrogant tone in his language).
When I came in, I decided to dissolve my boundless excitement in a glass of wine and sit at a table there. If you, like me, have problems with low blood pressure, or any other reason why you prefer to sit down, I must recommend you to arrive *at least* half an hour before the performance. The room got crowded quickly, so that there was nowhere to sit, and the auditorium opens just ten minutes before the performance.

I invited a lovely elderly English couple to sit at my table, we talked mostly about opera. They had seen Rusalka in English, and they had visited Prague. They said that they liked the city, but in such situation, I always fear the people are just being polite... Well, come and see for yourself :-). We also talked about the dress code. We couldn't agree more that people should dress nicely, to show to the surroundings *and* to themselves that this is a special occasion. They told me that some twenty years ago, long gowns and tailcoats were common. I confessed that I had been afraid of being underdressed, but that fright was soon gone, after having seen a guy there, a tad bit horizontally challenged, dressed in casual jeans, army green pullover and white sport shoes. It spoils the impression a bit, when you see such a figure. While we're at the fashion policing, Mrs. Hvorostovsky, who was also there, chose the elegance of little black dress, Maestro Orbelian was wearing a dark suit.
Then the performance began. Mr.Moshinsky had been criticized for this production of his, that the sets take too much time to change, that it's all too static etc. That was apparently the reason why he chose to reduce the number of flats, which I found very unfortunate, especially in the third act. I was also looking forward to the first act fight between Di Luna and Manrico. Yes, Mr.Alagna is a half-pint, but quite athletic, I mean, I wouldn't force Johan Botha to it, but I think Alagna could have pulled it off... However, Moshinsky decided to go for the "Leonora-prevents-the-fight-until-the-curtain-falls" option. There was some fighting in the convent, but there they forced Di Luna to lay on the ground, in the fashion of American cops arresting a suspect. I was sitting in the second row, and feeling the urge to bounce from Maestro Rizzi's head and help Dima out. Anyway, forcing him down was a bit unnecessary. The great news was that Moshinsky crossed out the gayish ballet-fight in the third act, which 1. was weird and 2. didn't match the overall concept of the production. Instead, the chorus members were singing, sitting on chairs at the edge of the stage, with several stunt-men (?) showing-off their impressive fencing abilities behind them. The Di quella pira reminded me of Lt. Columbo; Manrico went away and returned a couple of times, like the repeated line "Oh, there's just one other thing..." The last change to the original production was, Di Luna did not shoot Manrico to death, but stabbed him in an outburst of anger, having realized that Leonora killed herself because of him, and Manrico died in his arms. I very much like the idea of the Count killing his brother with his own hand, and this worked just perfectly.
As for the singing: Ms.Walewska as Azucena was very good, if somewhat insipid in comparison to the starry cast. Ms.Radvanovsky has a big voice, and frankly, I can't understand the people who keep criticizing her for some reason. She appears to be the best Verdian soprano around these days, and I like her approach to her roles, too. Mr. Alagna was a very pleasant surprise. To be honest, I was expecting a disaster, having seen him as Radames on the DVD, but he pulled off Manrico very well. Last, but not least: Dmitri Hvorostovsky. People say that he's got a small voice - to me he sounded louder than Alagna. People say that he's not a "true" Verdi barytone - that was perhaps true ten years ago. The singing, the acting, the feeling, the man. I am happy and honoured that I have seen one of history's greatest baritones at his best.
So Il Trovatore ended. I was almost shocked by how short the applause was - only one curtain-call?? I quickly went to the stage exit, hoping to meet Mr. Hvorostovsky, but apparently, he had gone earlier, or through another exit, if that is possible. However, I met Maestro Rizzi, and I got an autograph from Mr.Alagna. Of course, the only thing I had forgotten was a pen, but I met a lovely Polish woman there. She was standing a bit aside, so she was an easy victim of my attempts of conversation. Her English was not too good, so I asked her where she was from, and she said, Poland. I said "Já jsem z Čech" (I'm from Bohemia), and she said "Tak to možem po našom" (So we can speak our languages). I have a feeling that the Poles understand Czech better than the Czechs understand Polish. She lent me the pen and showed me the members of Roberto Alagna's family. She was there alone, going back to Poland in the morning. As we were leaving, she said she would take a walk through London by night, I hope she got to the airport safely.
Well, and that's it. The evening of wonders was ended. One thing is for sure, that I will remember it for the rest of my life.