Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Celestial Clockwork (Miralta Films, 1995)

Celestial Clockwork, is a Cinderella tale about a runaway bride, Ana (Ariadna Gil), who seeks refuge and fame in Paris while aspiring to be an opera singer. This must have landed on my Netflix suggestion list due to the opera bits. It certainly was not the style or type of movie.

With its “contemporary Video Artist” villain and early MTV style reveries through her lens, it felt strangely dated to me. I suppose, as it was made in 1995, it is just that I have not come to terms with the fact that we are days away from 2010.

After fleeing her own wedding in Caracas with nothing more than a Maria Callas poster and the white dress on her back, Ana flies to Paris to pursue her operatic dreams. In short order she has found herself a Russian singing teacher who, when she suggest singing Rossini, insists she dump the Italians and concentrate on Schubert arias. Frankly, I just can’t get with the sound of German opera. Luckily this is a polyglot of a film with singing and dialog in French, Spanish, Italian, English along with the German arias.

The cast of characters is varied and most are played for the melodramatic. My favorite is the Puerto Rican witch doctor with a suitcase full of charms and potions. Just when I was ready to ditch the movie in favor of folding laundry he would show up again to move things along.

Even the story within the story - Ana landing the lead in Rossini's opera "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella") did not do it for me. I am still on the prowl for an operatic film I can really enjoy…

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Der Rosenkavalier (DVD)

Last night and this afternoon I watched a 1985 Royal Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier with Kiri Te Kanawa as the Marcshaline and Anne Howells (I think) as Octavian.

I am not sure how much I like either Strauss or German opera. I enjoyed this story, but I didn't find the music as delightful and enthralling as, say, Mozart for example. There were a few beautiful arias, particularly in the last act. But in general I found the music rather unmelodious and the sound of the German language was jarring at times. Also, there was no major tenor singing beautiful and poignant arias like in most of the operas I've seen. The male lead was either a bass or baritone (I can't really tell the difference) and I didn't particularly like his performance.

I am seeing this live HD at BAM on January 9th, and it will be interesting to compare productions and performances. I have to say, though, Strauss is a little on the difficult side.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Caballé: Beyond Music (Euroarts, 2003)

Caballé: Beyond Music is a wonderful introduction to Barcelona born Diva Montserrat Caballé. This film explores her life on and off the stage with performance clips ranging from 1965 to 2002, interviews with her contemporaries, friends and family and candid home footage.

I found Caballé charming and vivacious. She exudes a fiery personality and a great deal of humor. I enjoyed her reminiscences of her childhood; the opera house in Barcelona is stunning. Actually this film is a great way to see a number of opera houses. In each setting Caballé talks about her experiences in that particular city.

There are a number of opera greats interviewed and I loved hearing about her collaboration with Queen's Freddie Mercury. A Queen band member had me laughing out loud when he describes Freddie’s initial instinct to tone his act down when on stage with her. Then his astonishment at what it was like to actually share the stage with Montserrat Caballé: “I mean she’s an opera singer, she was up there next to him like a bloody volcano!”

For the first time I had a sense of the power of an operatic pianissimo. Caballé’s controlled quiet singing is utterly gripping.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Don Giovanni

I watched a 2000 Metropolitan Opera production of Don Giovanni on DVD.

I have to say I did myself a disservice by watching it in spurts and watching it while doing other things. I just felt distracted and couldn't quite get into it. However, I think I really should have put a little effort into it because it was fabulous.

The music was lush and delightful and wonderful and it's now clear that I'm a Mozart fan.

All of the singers were wonderful, but what really made this seem special for me was the acting. I think this was the best acting I've seen in an opera so far. Or close to it. Bryn Terfel sang Don Giovanni, and he was incredible. He was truly powerful and despicable. He had a grim, gluttonous intensity to every moment that managed not to be cartoonish or too much. At the same time, it was horrid and hard to watch, but in a good way. Even his sweating, rather than being distracting, added a maniacal edge to his performance.

I really enjoyed Hei-Kyung Hong's performance as Zerlina, she was sweet and sexy and very animated; and of course her voice was beautiful. Paul Groves perfomance as Donna Anna's fiance Ottavio was so tender and earnestly sung. Renee Fleming sang Donna Anna, and her voice was great, but I was less moved by her acting over all; Elvira was sung by Solveig Kringelborn and she played the role with a single-minded intensity. I felt for her, but she really only had one emotion or facial expression. Ferruccio Furlanetto played Leporello.

As much as I enjoyed Don Giovanni, I wasn't emotionally connected to it. Even La Boheme, where I wasn't crazy about the performances, moved me more deeply. So far I think it's Puccinni for emotional connection and Mozart for music.

I was however deeply moved when the performers came out for their bows. I got choked up just because of how intense the singing was and I had feeling for how much they had just put into performing. It's kind of how I feel when I watch the marathoners on 4th avenue each year. I just get a jolt of emotion.

Friday, December 11, 2009


A friend had last minute tickets to see Strauss's Elektra at the Met last night! It was a *wonderful* surprise!

Elektra is totally different than any kind of opera I've seen so far. The music was far more dramatic and intense, and possibly more complex (although what do I know). It created this sense of emotional urgency that was actually exhausting. Even though the music had mellower or more haunting moments, and it wasn't exactly all on one pitch, the level of emotion was so high that it felt like there was little break from it. Also, literally there were no breaks. No pauses to applaud an aria, no intermission.

Susan Bullock sang Elektra, and gave a powerful performance. I was more empathetic to the other female characters, though. Klytamnestra was sung by Felicity Palmer and I found her part very moving. I was more able to empathize with her torment than with Elektra's (I have to say, sometimes Elektra just seemed petulant and pouty rather than filled with rage, but I think part of that had to do with the staging). Elektra's sister Chrysothemis was sung by Deborah Voigt and this also was a very moving performance, and a very moving role. There were few male parts, but the singer who played Orestes was very commanding and had a great voice and stage presence (Evgeny Nikitin).

I have to say I found the staging rather uncomfortable to watch. The set was terrific, but it was set at a near acute angle, and there was a set of stairs without a banister that was used frequently. It seemed like the performers had trouble feeling physically confident, and watching them deal with these structural impediments was kind of distracting. Plus, they had long trains I was nervous they were going to trip over.

Also, there was a giant dead horse on the side of the stage that was creepy and horrifying and beautiful all at the same time.

I should also note, this was my first German opera, and the sound of the words definitely took some getting used to.

I felt that this was an opera that I would very much like to listen to to really hear and experience the music.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Opera Hits (Kultur Video, 1999)

Opera Hits
(Kultur Video, 1999) is a strange and uneven "greatest hits" DVD. Perhaps I have been spoiled seeing such high quality live performances this year, but this hardly seemed to be crème de la crème.

It certainly is more mainstream than the bizarre Opera Fanatic. Yet I found the film production value sorely lacking. For example, throughout the first number "Largo al factotum" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia clunking footsteps are clearly audible.

There is a very short informational screen between each piece stating the specific opera, the site of the performance and the performers. That helped me identify what I felt were the highlights.

Performances at Teatro alla Scala in Milan get two of my top votes, one for best Divo: Jose Carreras. Carreras sings two pieces from Andrea Chénier with amazing passion and skill! The other pick, this time for best group effort, goes to the Chorus of La Scala performing Verdi's Nabucco. This was really weird and boring to watch – a large number of people wrapped in white swathing standing still, but such controlled and intense music!

The other stand out performance, my favorite Diva of the DVD, is Maria Ewing as Carmen at Glyndebourne festival. The odd bit of staging is the chorus is all smoking cigars. Yes, while they sing?! Weird. I think the gal Diana and I saw sing Carmen at the Open Mike at the Brooklyn Museum modeled her performance on Ewing. It worked for both of them!

Over all the film is a bit of a dud. I expect there must be better out there, I will keep looking (and watching) and let you know.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Making Opera: The Creation of Verdi's La Forza de Destino

Well, although not as problematic as Opera Fanatic, Making Opera: The Creation of Verdi's La Forza de Destino was not exactly wonderful. I mean, I liked it enough, but it really, really dragged for me and I was doing some serious multitasking while it was playing.

Making Opera follows a company putting together an opera from day one to the dress rehearsal 21 days later. There are very few talking heads, just scene after somewhat disjointed scene of rehearsals. It's interesting and boring at the same time.

It was interesting seeing the chorus rehearse, particularly the first time they had a stage rehearsal. It was interesting watching the singers perform their roles sitting down in a room on their first day. Although they focused on the singers, the conductor (Arenas) and the director (Copley), I was most curious about the backstage stuff. They showed all the painstaking work that is done by hand, such as the painting of every little square on the giant wall, and the sewing of the wigs and costumes. One of my favorite moments was during a principals' rehearsal. It was a one of their birthday's and the cast surprised them with a cake. I've never, ever heard such a wonderful rendition of the Happy Birthday song!

There were very long extended scenes of the singing, particularly at the end for the final dress rehearsal, and I found it boring. Maybe I would have liked it better if there were subtitles for the performance parts. The music was absolutely beautiful, but the documentary just didn't feel that compelling or even watchable.

(I thought this moment of the brilliant soprano singing in a tacky cat t-shirt particularly amusing)

(They really need to start making better opera documentaries. I did hear that the Met has one showing now called The Audition)

December 22, Update from Meridith

Diana is spot on about Making Opera, it is most definitely simultaneously interesting and boring. The quality of the film itself is very low -- the color is off and the picture is grainy.

I thought the singing was quite good. I am not familiar with Verdi's La Forza de Destino and enjoyed the parts of it that were depicted. I would have liked to hear more commentary from the people involved including the singers, the crew and the musicians.

It is very different in feel from Opera Fanatic, but equally strange and amateurish in format and presentation.

Finally, the cat t-shirt is just the tip of the iceberg. There was more bad fashion on this cast and crew of Making Opera than I have seen in one place in a long time. The other female lead sports a metallic applique sweater that is simply hideous and it is a parade of ugly eyeglasses!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Celebrating Puccini

Celebrating Puccini
The Morgan Library & Museum
September 15, 2009-January 10, 2010

This charming small exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of composer Giacomo Puccini’s birth in Lucca, Italy.

On view are personal letters, telegrams, musical scores, librettos, notes, programs, posters, opera souvenir postcards and -- one of my favorite items -- a wooden fan that is painted with portraits, bits of musical scores and autographs. It is exhibited in the case to highlight Puccini’s autograph, of course.

There are two listening stations with headphones. I wished that the music was simply playing in the room. There was music playing in other parts of the museum, so this is not such a radical desire.

Also on display on the second floor is a show about Jane Austin, while it is at least three times larger, I preferred Celebrating Puccini. It is more focused in a overall sense and more varied in the range of objects included.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Opera Fanatic

(this is one mezzo's response to Zucker's intimations about the sexual proclivities of mezzos)

(This is an example of the yellow cast to much of the film)

So, Opera Fanatic-- Not sure what to say about this, uh, "singular" documentary.

It chronicles an opera fanatic in his quest to find out what drove the "expressive" singing of opera divas from the 40s & 50s (that is, the divas of his childhood). He manages to get a number of interesting interviews with some very impressive, elegant, quirky, accomplished, and charismatic elderly ladies, and these are juxtaposed with footage of them singing in their heyday. So, that was pretty good.

However, the fanatic himself, Stefan Zucker is really kind of problematic. His voice is almost impossible to get past, and he is the slowest speaker I have ever heard. His fanaticism with opera seems linked to some oedipal issues (his mother and he both were opera singers, and sung many duets together. He said that none of the women he loved as an adult had the emotional range that his mother had) (Also worth mentioning, Zucker achieved the world's record for highest tenor).

Furthermore, his weird sexuality seeps into the film in an unpleasant way. He informs the filmmakers while they are in the car on the way to interview a famous mezzo-soprano, that mezzos are known for their sexual proclivities. To quote: "To judge from accounts of singers I've interviewed, they enjoy kinds of intercourse other women might find painful." (I placed a picture above of the mezzo's retort to this suggestion.). He also tells one woman he interviewed that he felt "an erotic intensity" to her "emanations". Yuck.

Also the film quality was pretty poor. Much footage had a yellow cast to it, and most of it seemed grainy. Not only that, but there were entire chunks of dialogue that weren't subtitled.

Here's what one Netflix reviewer wrote:

"The bad color is surely an accident of inept filming, but the rest reflects the character of interviewer Stefan Zucker, a bloated, simpering prig with tunnel vision about singing technique. The first offense is that Zucker speaks, at all times, in an affected falsetto that is torture to hear. It's a wonder he isn't beaten to a pulp by everyone he dares to address. The second is that he omits any overview of each diva's professional accomplishments during a bygone era and instead hounds them all with the same two questions about the nature of "expressive singing" and the utility of "the chest voice." He writhes appallingly to encourage one diva's twisted wisecrack about a "spanking," gushes that he finds another interview "erotic," and otherwise tries to worm his way into their confidences through flattery and little gifts that they complain about having to accept ("What shall I do with THESE?"). Marcella Pobbe finally gives him a much needed verbal whack by refusing to go along with his "stupid questions," which is probably the highlight of this otherwise unbearable film."