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October 14/06

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Reviewed here: Lucia di Lammermoor (Royal Opera, Feb 17, 1959); The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni (Operas); DiscDrive (Radio); The Queen (Movie)

Lucia di Lammermoor Royal Opera Covent Garden, Feb 17, 1959, "Heritage Series" Recording (Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, CBC Radio Two, October 21, 2006)

Faithful readers of Dilettante’s Diary will be able to guess why the afternoon of Saturday, October 21 was a big occasion in this department. Not just because of the broadcast of the Salzburg Festival’s production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito – which was of course, great. The high point of the afternoon was the feature item on the recording of Joan Sutherland’s debut as Lucia in the Royal Opera production on February 17, 1959. Around here, that debut has the kind of reverberation of those other great events of the last half of the 20th century. Say, Paul Henderson’s famous goal in the Russia-Canada series. Or the first moon walk. Or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I’ve been hearing so much about that legendary night that it almost feels as though I was there. In imagination, at least, I’ve put myself in that audience many times – although it does take rather a stretch to figure out how a grade-nine boy from Sarnia, Ontario could have got there. (It wasn’t until four or five years later that I actually got to see Joan in the Met production of Lucia.) My idea of a good time on Friday nights in the later years of high school was to go to the library and take out Joan’s recording of "The Art of the Prima Donna" and spend the night listening. As I remember it, the album had pasted on the cover, thanks to some helpful librarian, a newspaper clipping of Joan on the night. There she was backstage, beaming with exhilaration and clutching a huge bouquet of lilies.

So it was thrilling to hear about the actual night from the people involved – including Dame Joan herself. "I just remember that I got very tired bowing" – her comment on the applause that went on all through the intermission. One thing that the commentary emphasized was something that I’m constantly trying to tell everybody I button-hole in the street: Joan’s voice in the bel canto repertoire was something new, something never heard before. The opera world had heard the Lilly Pons types who could do all the acrobatics that the role of Lucia required – but in a tiny, bird-like voice – a piccolo, say. But Joan brought something unprecedented – a richer, more golden sound, more like a flute, to continue with the musical instrument analogy. If you don’t know about the newness of that, you can’t fully appreciate Dame Joan.

What I didn’t know was that hardly anybody, including Joan herself, thought she was capable of this kind of singing. Before this watershed event, she was making her name as an up-and-coming star in the Royal Opera mostly with repertoire of Mozart, Verdi and – get this – Wagner. Her husband Richard ("Dickie") Bonynge was one of the few people who thought she could scale the stratospheric heights of coloratura. In fact, Dame Joan tells how he tricked her into finding out that she could sing the parts: at the keyboard, he transposed roles a few notes higher without her knowing. The administration at the Royal Opera wanted a new star vehicle for Joan but only one or two bosses bought Dickie’s argument that Lucia was it. Thank goodness, they were the ones who had the final say. To think that, otherwise, we might never have had this spectacularly successful career in bel canto!

One strange thing about the recording, though. In the excerpt from this first act, Joan sounds just as I remember her. But in the climactic mad scene her voice sounds younger and less golden. (Could they have combined tapes from two different performances? From the accompanying explanations, I couldn't quite make out whether this is a recording of the actual night. It’s apparently presented as such. Does that mean the Royal Opera always had the tapes running?) Amazing as the singing is in the mad scene, it isn’t quite as good as Dame Joan in her prime. The final high note is definitely wonky – which is something I never thought I’d find myself saying about Dame Joan. But hey, if I’d been there in that wild crowd on February 17, 1959, clapping and yelling myself hoarse all through the intermission like the rest of the Royal Opera crowd, do you think I’d remember one bad note?

 

The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from the Salzburg Festival ("Saturday Afternoon at the Opera", CBC Radio Two, Oct 7 and Oct 14/06)

The good thing about the fact that nobody is clamouring for my company these days is that it left me free to catch most of these two broadcasts. To hear the two of greatest works of Western culture on succeeding weekends is almost too much to ask for. You can only marvel at the genius of the composer. The more you listen to these pieces, the more you feel that you’re just beginning to scratch the surface. The depth and complexity of the emotion conveyed by the music is inexhaustible.

At first, I thought the orchestra’s playing of Figaro under Nikolaus Harnoncourt rather odd. The overture didn’t sound as zippy as usual; the downbeats were rather heavy and the whole thing sounded studied rather than spontaneous. But Maestro Harnoncourt was making me hear things I’d never heard before in that most familiar of overtures. In parts of it, the interplay between the instruments sounded like chamber music. Such revelations are always welcome.

The majestic pace prevailed through much of the opera. You’d think that would make it hard on the singers but it didn’t get in the way of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.  He made a very dark sounding Figaro but he has a fabulous voice and used it to great effect. The darkness of Anna Netrebko’s voice in the part of Susanna didn’t sound so appropriate to me. It never struck me that Russian gravitas is what the part has been looking for all these years. Magnificent as Ms. Netrebko’s voice is, her "Deh vieni, non tardar" lacked that playful, flirtatious sensuality that it gets from an ideal Susanna like, say, Anna Moffo.

For all I know, though, Ms. Netrebko, who is one of the hottest new stars on the opera circuit, may have won the audience over with her acting. And, strange to say for a radio broadcast of an opera, the acting in this production made a strong impression on me. Dorothea Rschmann’s Countess was spitting mad in the recitatives, ripping off those rolled r’s like a volley of machine gun fire.

But my main reason for writing about this production is Christine Schfer’s handling of the part of Cherubino. In the recitative in the second act, Ms Schfer was whispery and faint of heart like a truly love-struck young teenager. And when it came to that most sublime ditty Voi che sapete, she took the decision not to stand and deliver the aria as a perfectly sculpted gem offered up by an opera singer at the height of her powers. Instead, she gave us a secret something that a teenage boy had dreamed up and that he was very awkward about exposing to his listeners. A very daring decision for an opera singer! The best of it was that the "boy" seemed not at all aware of the beauty of his voice; in fact, he was holding back, except at certain moments when the power of his emotions and the surge of the song overcame his discretion and he let go. Thrilling and unforgettable! * (see note below about DiscDrive for Tuesday, Oct 10)

The odd thing about Don Giovanni, from my point of view, is that Leporello (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, again) had the better voice than Thomas Hampson in the title role. I know Mr. Hampson is one of the most sought-after baritones in the opera world these days but his rather mellow, less ringing voice didn’t come over as well as Signor D’Arcangelo’s resonant bass-baritone. Mr. Hampson is supposed to be quite dishy though, so maybe he makes a very riveting Don onstage. One advantage of the difference in the two voices was that you could usually tell the Don and Leporello apart, which isn’t always the case when you can’t see the two singers. And the banter and laughter between them had a genuinely lecherous sound that you don’t always hear.

You may remember my hissy fit about the omission of Don Ottavio’s show-stopper "Il Mio Tesoro" in a production by Toronto’s Opera Atelier a while back (Dilettante's Diary Dec 5/05). So I was delighted that Piotr Beczala gave the part the full treatment. Mind you, he’s not long in the finesse department. More of a Franco Corelli than a Leopold Simoneau or a Michael Schade. But he sure can belt it out.

Christine Schfer disappointed me slightly here, not with her singing, but just in the fact that I couldn’t make out many of her words. (I guess you’re supposed to know them well enough that it doesn’t matter.) What a singer, though! Her "Non mi dir" near the end of the performance brought on the first real ovation of the whole show. Most arias got a perfunctory 10 seconds of applause but the outcry for Ms. Schafer was still going strong when conductor Daniel Harding cut it off after twenty seconds.

The response to that aria was the first time in the broadcast when any significant yelling was heard from the audience. I wonder if those Salzburgers, unlike the vociferous patrons of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, have some strange notion to the effect that most of the vocalizing in an opera house should take place onstage?

 

* DiscDrive (Tuesday, October 10)

We haven't often mentioned this program on Dilettante's Diary.But something came up on Tuesday, October 10, that couldn't pass without comment. Near the top of the program, Jurgen Gothe played a rendition of "Voi che sapete" by Magdalena Kozena which was practically the opposite of Ms. Schfer's. Ms. Kozena made it about as showy and florid as you can get: hardly a line went by without some sort of ornamentation. At first, I was thinking Mozart would be horrified at the distortion. But you know what? It was fun. I loved it. Apparently that tune is indestructible!

 

The Queen (Movie) directed by Stephen Frears, written by Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen

I’m not sure that I approve of this kind of movie. Somehow, it doesn’t seem quite fair to come up with your own interpretations of the lives of people who are still alive and to put them up there on the screen for all to see – especially when those people are not able to set the record straight. On the other hand, you could argue that their privileged privacy and the fact that they never will tell their side of the story is exactly what gives us the right to do with it as we please. In any case, I have to give the makers of this film points for one wise decision. We never see – except in the distance, and usually from behind – the grieving young princes who just lost their mother. That strikes me as one step in the direction of decency.

Moral scruples aside, everybody who’s infected with the royal bug is going to see this movie. And there are lots of us, judging from the opening-day crowds of Torontonians packing the theatre where the movie is showing on two screens. Ostensibly, the movie’s about the Queen’s dilemma over whether or not to make a public show of mourning over the death of Princess Diana. But people are  buying tickets to get a rare peek at the private life of the world’s most famous woman. They want to convince themselves that they're watching the real thing.

To that end, it’s remarkable how much Helen Mirren has been made to look like the Queen. I suppose once you get that helmet of silver curls, you’re half way there. Ms. Mirren’s acting is superb but I’d have to say she doesn’t capture every aspect of the real person. The Queen and I aren’t really intimate friends, but it seems to me that there is a warmth about her that is missing from this movie. Here we get starch and dignity, the well-known frown, plus the wry humour, but not much of the sparkle in the eyes and the radiance of the smile. And where does that gawky walk come from?

Actually, it wouldn’t matter to me if the actress didn’t look anything like the Queen. My main reason for seeing the movie is to get a look behind the scenes. I’ll probably never be invited for a weekend at Balmoral, so I want to know how things go: what do they wear to bed at night? who gets them up in the morning? what do they talk about when they’re alone with each other? how does a private secretary interrupt a family gathering to bring bad news? Few people know for sure what goes on, but I assume the movie makers know more than I do about the modus vivendi in such high places. It looks authentically re-created here.

Apart from this window dressing, the question is whether the movie works as a drama on its own terms. I’d say it does, at least to some extent. We get a portrait of a woman caught in a difficult situation and we learn more about her through her responses. A couple of particularly touching scenes give glimpses of her hidden feelings. In order not to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll just refer to them as "the jeep at the river" scene and the "inspecting the flowers" scene. The dramatic conflict is nicely set up with the newly-elected Tony Blair (Michael Sheen in a superb performance) as the force for modernization and change, supported by Prince Charles. On the other side is the palace establishment lead by Prince Phillip and the Queen Mother. Mr. Blair’s views on the royal business turn out to be more nuanced and interesting as the movie goes along. On a historical note, it’s interesting to be reminded that he was once the golden boy who brought a whiff of fresh air and a hope of renewal to stodgy old Britain!

Still, when it comes to the problems that beset crowned heads, this movie hardly packs the impact of Shakespeare. Even compared to something like the Abdication Crisis, the Diana Dilemma was tepid. Let’s face it, we’re watching less for the drama than for base curiosity about these people. Which brings me to the one thing that nearly wrecked the movie for me – the audience. People seemed to want to turn it into a comedy. An early shot shows the Queen sitting formally, decked in royal satins and velvets. Then she turns and looks to one side. Guffaws all around! I don’t see what’s so funny about that. Or about Prince Phillip saying "Your tea has gotten cold," after the Queen has been interrupted by a call from the Prime Minister. Or the Queen walking in flat shoes with her dogs. Or setting the table for a family picnic by a river. People seemed to think they were watching Monty Python. When the members of the royal family showed the slightest human departure from the regal pose, the audience reacted as if they’d heard a priest fart at the altar. For godsake, grow up people!

Rating: B ( i.e. "Better than most).

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com