Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Exploring Artists: Jonas Kaufmann

I owe Jonas Kaufmann an apology.  Anyone who has been following my blog from the start knows that, in the past, I have not been kind.  When I first heard him, I did not like him at all.  And it wasn't the depth or darkness of his voice.  After all, I much prefer the darker tenor voices to the bright, sunny, cheerful-sounding ones.  I would gladly listen to Domingo (my all-time favorite tenor) over Pavarotti (who I avoid in any role that isn't the Duke of Mantua) any day of the week.  Among the newer generation of tenors, I favor those who have followed in Domingo's footsteps, and greatly appreciate the voices that have baritone qualities.  So it was not the depth of his voice, although it did take me some time to become convinced that Kaufmann was not just a baritone trying to sing tenor roles.  No, I thought his voice was somewhat muffled, as if he had something in his mouth.  It may be that I had just found all the wrong YouTube videos, but there you have it.  I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what it was that everyone saw in him.

Then last month I went to see Tosca from the Royal Opera House at Cinema Paradiso, a lovely local art-house theater.  I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by him, but I wasn't expecting too much.  I was going because I love Tosca, and because I was excited to see Bryn Terfel as Scarpia.  I was really anticipating nothing more than a tolerable performance from Kaufmann.  Harsh, I know, but there you have it.  So when I did finally see his Cavaradossi, I was caught completely off guard.  Not only did he sing the role very well, (second only to Domingo among all the Marios I have seen and heard,) he could ACT!  I mean, really act.  He seemed to really understand what the character was all about, and then adeptly conveyed that understanding to the audience.
After I saw that performance, I decided I was willing to give Kaufmann another chance.  However, I approached his music slowly, and with some trepidation.  And, while some of what I found did not impress me, a lot of it really did.  I discovered that, although some roles really don't suit him (at least in my opinion), when he sings the right characters, he really is an exceptional singer.  His voice has all the color of a baritone, yet he deftly handles the range of a tenor.  This combination helps him provide a certain depth of character that is often missing from the tenor roles.

Jonas Kaufmann was born in Munich in 1969.  While he studied piano and sang in the school choir as a child, he very nearly became a mathematician.  However, he realized after a couple of semesters that he would never be happy with such a career choice.  So he began his vocal training at  the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich, and upon graduation he signed a contract with the State Theatre in Saarbr├╝cken.  It was during that time that he began to have trouble with his voice, but under the instruction of Michael Rhodes, he learned to sing more easily by simply using his natural tone.

In the intervening years, Jonas Kaufmann has sung a wide variety of roles, from Rossini's Almaviva (this, I can't even imagine!) to some of the great Verdi and Puccini parts.  He recently sang Siegmund at the Met, and has been applauded as an outstanding interpreter of Wagner's works.  He is currently appearing, once again, on the stage of the Met, singing the title role in Gounod's Faust.

Jonas Kaufmann evokes strong reactions from opera lovers everywhere.  People either love him or hate him.  He is variably called the greatest tenor alive or a baritone in tenor's clothes.  There's not a whole lot of middle ground where he is concerned.  I used to be part of the group of people who strongly dislike him.  But my opinion is changing.  While he is still not my very favorite tenor in the world, (as I have said before, that spot will always be reserved for Domingo) I am beginning to develop an appreciation for his voice that grows every time I hear him.  In a few short weeks, I have done a (somewhat) complete about-face.  Whereas once I wondered what people saw in him, I now have come to enjoy his rich, dark voice.  In time, I may become one of his die-hard fans.  Then again, I may not.  In the meantime, though, I plan on savoring his voice for its unique tones.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to my new recording of Madama Butterfly, starring Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Madama Butterfly flutters in to Palm Beach

I have never been to the Palm Beach Opera before. Never made the one-hour drive (an hour and a half in traffic) north to the Kravis Center. That's partly because it's such a schlep.  But it's mostly because, up until this season, I only knew about the Florida Grand Opera.  I thought that, aside from the Met's Live in HD transmissions, that was all the opera we had here.  (Don't get me wrong, though.  I'm not complaining about either one of those.)  Well, that's all changed now.  Because on my journey to discover every last bit of opera in South Florida, I not only stumbled upon PBO and the wonderful season they have planned, I was fortunate enough to attend the final dress rehearsal of Madama Butterfly last night.  And after that performance, I will not think twice before making the trek to West Palm Beach again.

Palm Beach Opera opens its 2011-2012 season tonight with Puccini's tragic masterpiece.  Madama Butterfly, which premiered in 1904, is one of the most frequently performed operas today.  Although it was originally composed in two acts, Puccini later revised it and divided the second act into two separate acts.  It is the three-act version that is most commonly performed, although while some opera companies take a short intermission between Acts II and III, others present them both together.  (PBO does the latter, and the effect is overwhelming.  But more on that later.)
First, the set.  The stage was very simple and uncluttered.  The scenery consisted of sliding screens, as in most productions of Butterfly.  But these screens were beautifully detailed, and provided a very authentic atmosphere.  The costumes, too, were very beautiful, and the careful attention to detail, especially in mannerisms, all made it so real.  But back to the setting.  In the middle of this simple, beautiful Japanese home, Pinkerton arrived accompanied by a collection of American furnishings, and immediately set the tone for the rest of the opera.  He very clearly had no respect for his Japanese hosts, and the incompatibility of the two cultures was subtly yet clearly portrayed with simple movements and gestures.  For example, upon meeting Suzuki, he offered his hand to shake, and was startled when she did not accept, but rather responded with a bow.  There was a complete disconnect between East and West, and it was played out perfectly throughout the entire performance.
Now the music.  First of all, Palm Beach Opera has an excellent orchestra, and under the baton of Maestro Bruno Aprea, they played marvelously.  Not once did I find myself thinking, as I often do during a performance, that a given passage should have been played faster or slower, louder or softer.  It was, in other words, exactly how Madama Butterfly should be played, at least to my ears.
Next, the singers.  The supporting cast were all very good.  As this was a dress rehearsal, some of them chose not to sing at full volume.  This was barely noticeable, however, as everything blended together so beautifully to really be almost perfect.  The Bonzo, sung by Valentin Vasiliu, was particularly powerful, and Irene Roberts was absolutely lovely as Suzuki.  The part of Sharpless was sung well by Michael Chioldi, and while at times I felt he could have put more power into it, I assume that he was simply preserving his voice for the weekend run.

Now, Pinkerton.  For this production of Madama Butterfly, Palm Beach Opera has obtained two Pinkertons and two Cio-Cio-Sans, who will be singing on alternating nights.  Tonight's Opening Night performance stars James Valenti as Pinkerton, and I was hoping to see him at last night's performance.  It was not to be, and yet I was not disappointed.  Rafael Davila, who will be performing on Saturday night, sang the role with such beauty and skill as to rival any other Pinkerton I have ever seen.  His voice is full and bright, overflowing with amusement, yet softened with tenderness and touched with sorrow at all the right moments.  He played the role with such callous nonchalance that, despite his wonderful singing, he elicited boos from the audience at the final curtain. 
Next, Cio-Cio-San.  Where to begin?  First, Opening Night will star Maria Luigia Borsi.  Last night, however, the beautiful Butterfly was sung by soprano Michele Capalbo, who will also be performing on Saturday night.  And I'll tell you this: anyone attending that evening is in for a real treat.  Beautiful, delicate, heartwrenching, and any other word you could associate with Butterfly could be applied to her performance.  Her voice is powerful, yet exceedingly gentle and full of innocence.  She floated gracefully through the opera, and one could almost believe, while watching her, that she really was the naive fifteen-year-old Geisha.  She wrung tears from my eyes long before the full extent of the tragedy was known to her, and her final moments were simply devastating.  Here she is, singing Un Bel Di from Act II.      

And finally, little Dolore.  The child was so beautiful, and played along charmingly.  He played with the flower petals, wrapped himself in an American flag, and waited patiently for his father.  After the performance, I learned that "he" was played by a little girl.  Apparently they sit still and follow directions better than little boys do.  (I don't know, my four-year-old boy would have probably been up for the task.  He would come out, see the audience, realize he was in an opera, and burst out singing Ferrando... Oh, wait.  That would be exactly what he's NOT supposed to do.  So yeah, I guess little girls are better at following directions, after all.)
I left the Kravis Center choked up and with teary eyes.  I drove home in silence, not wanting to ruin the effect of the evening, spending the hour-long drive reliving some of the most beautiful moments in my head.  Madama Butterfly is one of my favorite operas, and Palm Beach Opera offers a moving, stunningly gorgeous performance.  This is not one to miss, even if you do have to drive an hour and a half to get there.  It is well worth the time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Opera-tune-ists: Giuseppe Verdi

First off, apologies for the horrendous pun.  My brother came up with it, and it was just too awful not to use.  I'll try not to subject you to too many more of them today.  Secondly, today I'm introducing another new series to the South Florida Opera Scene.  Opera-tune-ists, in case you haven't guessed, are composers.  (You know, opera-TUNE-ists?  Tune, get it?  Oh, never mind.)  Anyway, as with the Exploring Artists series, I will be starting with my favorite composers, and I will slowly work my way on to some that I may be less familiar with.  With each composer, I'll start with a brief history, discuss some of his (or her) famous works, and touch on some more obscure compositions.  And who knows?  We might all discover something new from this!

Our first opera-tune-ist is Giuseppe Verdi, my absolute favorite composer.  Verdi was born in 1813 in Le Roncole, a village located in the Duchy of Parma.  He began his musical education in Busetto, but moved to Milan as a young man to complete his studies.  His first opera, Oberto, was moderately successful when it premiered at La Scala in 1839.  Un Giorno di Regno, his second opera, was his first attempt at a comedy.  The opera, however, was a failure, due in part to the untimely deaths of his wife and two young children while he was writing it.  After its premiere and subsequent cancellation, Verdi almost gave up composition, but fortunately for us, he agreed to write Nabucco, which skyrocketed him to fame.  In the years after this success, Verdi composed many brilliant works, including his three most popular operas, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and Rigoletto.  After Aida, which premiered in 1871, Verdi took a sixteen year hiatus from composition, and did not produce another opera until 1887, when he unveiled Otello.  His final opera, Falstaff, was a huge success when it premiered in 1893.  In the intervening years before his death, he completed a handful of compositions that included the sacred work Stabat Mater.  Verdi suffered a stroke on January 21, 1901, and died six days later. 
During his lifetime, Verdi met many challenges to his work from the censors.  Many of his libretti were considered too politically provocative, and names, ranks, and locations had to be changed before the operas were deemed acceptable.  Verdi has been variably associated with the Risorgimento, and his name was adopted as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia.  Following the unification of Italy, he served briefly as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, and was named a Senator of the Kingdom.
Verdi's music was greatly influenced by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, and Meyerbeer, but he succeeded in creating a sound that was entirely his own.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Verdi avoided any Wagnerian influence in all of his works except Otello.  Here are three examples of Verdi's brilliance, taken from his early, middle, and late career.
Here is Ildar Abdrazakov as Oberto, from Verdi's first forray into the world of opera.

No discussion of Verdi would be complete without the Brindisi from La Traviata, so here it is with that Titan among tenors, Placido Domingo.

Okay, I lied.  I will actually be sharing two examples from Verdi's middle career.  I just couldn't bring myself to write about Verdi without including one of the greatest Verdi baritones, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, singing one of Verdi's greatest baritone roles.  Now I agonized over whether to use Il Trovatore or Rigoletto, and Rigoletto almost won, but (I'm sure I've said this before) Il Trovatore is my very favorite, so how could I not choose it?  Anyway, here is Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing the duet from Act IV with Sondra Radvanovsky.

And here is Verdi's late triumph, Otello, sung by the brilliant duo, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.  Oh, and nice pants, Sherrill.

Okay, okay, I know I said only three videos, and I know I already added a fourth, but after all, I did say that I would include some works that were not so well-known.  So here is Dmitri Hvorostovsky (again) in I Masnadieri.  And a big thank you to our friend over at Dimaland for creating this beautiful video.

And on that note, I bid you all good night.  Until next time!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Read along, sing a song!

Happy Monday, everyone!  Today I am going to continue on the subject of introducing opera to children.  Over the weekend, I took my boys to a program at the public library, put on by Florida Grand Opera, that promotes literacy through the arts.  The program, called "Read Along, Sing a Song", combines reading with song and dance, using music and movement to bring the story to life.
We got to the library a little early, and the kids passed the time by playing on the computers.  (Remember the days when people went to the library to read?)  When everything was set up, we went into the multipurpose room, and all the children congregated on the floor in the front row.  The program began with a brief introduction to opera.  While almost everyone there knew roughly what opera is, very few of them had ever experienced it before.  So they got their first taste from soprano Kyaunnee Richardson, who sang the Doll Song from The Tales of Hoffmann.  She invited the children from the audience to come up and press buttons on her dress and pull her finger (it's not as bad as it sounds) to make her move.  I appologize for the poor video quality, but I was having camera issues (like having my husband do the filming).

The aria was very well received, and the children discussed the different things the doll did while she sang, noting that sometimes she needed to be wound back up.  Then they all formed a circle, did some movement exercises, and experimented with an accordion.  Then it was storytime.  They read The Nutcracker and discussed their favorite parts.  (Most said they liked the part about going to the Land of Sweets.)  Then they broke out the hats, put on the music, and the fun really began.  They performed the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and Russian dances, some of them timidly and others with reckless enthusiasm.  Again, appologies for the video quality.

At the end of the program, each child was given his or her choice of an opera activity book.  They were also given the opportunity to sign up for supernumerary auditions, for those moments when a non-singing, non-speaking child is needed.  Naturally, my older son was first in line, throwing his fist in the air and shouting, "I'm in!" at the first mention of a chance to actually be in an opera.  My four-year-old wanted to be in one, too, but he was expecting to be able to sing Ferrando from Il Trovatore.  I only hope he's not too disappointed when he finds out he'll have to wait a few years for that, at least until his voice changes.

Anyway, the children all seemed to have a wonderful time, and it was apparent that a couple of them were particularly affected by the program.  They seemed genuinely excited about opera, and were eager for more.  And the good news is that, throughout the remainder of the season, there will be many more opportunities for these and other children in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to participate in these wonderful events.  So whether the child in your life already knows and loves opera, or has never heard a note of it, I highly recommend attending one of these programs.  You never know what it could lead to!