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Friday, October 17, 2014

Anita Cerquetti, an Introduction and a Rememberance

It would have been easy to label this post 'The Forgotten Prima Donna, but the fact is that soprano Anita Cerquetti has long been cherished by opera enthusiasts and record collectors. That says something for Cerquetti's art, since few of us heard her live. The lady retired in 1961 at the age of thirty and never sang in public again.

Anita Cerquetti died last week at her home in Rome, at the age of 83. She had surfaced in a few documentary films in recent years, a cheerful, hefty old lady who spoke intelligently and passionately, not about her career but about music, text, and singing.

Far from being a curiosity, Cerquetti had a fine career for the decade on the 1950s. Her debut at age 20, to her final appearances in 1961 had her singing all over Italy, South America and Europe. In the States she appeared with the Chicago Opera, and I believe there were concerts in New York and Philadelphia. This was a brief career, Euro-based. Of commercial recordings in the age of Tebaldi and Callas, there are only two: La Gioconda with Del Monaco, Simionato and Bastianni, and an aria recital.

The record companies weren't interested. The public was. Cerquetti excelled in the big Verdi girls: Aida, the Leonoras, Abigaille and Elena in I vespri Siciliani. Bellini's Norma was a specialty. Cerquetti it was who replaced Callas when that singer abandoned a run of Normas in Rome in 1958, to international fury  (de Gaulle and the President of Italy were in the audience. It was thought Callas 'walked out', thus insulting the heads of state, when in fact she was ill and simply could not sing)

Cerquetti was a big woman with an expressive face and a large, gleaming voice. There as a certain huskiness to the tone which helped give the voice originality. The tone was even thought the scale. Norma's rage was no problem for Cerquetti, nor was Norma's ecstasy. This was a huge talent with a very brief career. Why?

Cerquetti spent her life explaining her early retirement, and fighting off rumors from cancer to insanity. By 1961 she was tired. In an interview with Lanfranco Rasponi, she stated:

"When my father became hopelessly ill, I cancelled ll my performances so I could be with him, as I loved him with all my heart. After the shock of his death, my beloved  maestro Mario Rossini, to whom I owed everything, passed away. I kept postponing the signing of contracts, then I found myself pregnant. After the birth of my daughter Gioia, once more I could not make up my mind to resume. She needed love, attention and care, and who was going to give it to her with a mother always on the go?"

So she stopped. Raised her daughter and enjoyed her home and family. Interest in her singing never wavered. Cerquetti was always the source of rumor and musical journalists often rang the doorbell. Rasponi, in the aforementioned interview in the elate 1970s tell us, "At first Cerquetti was not eager to see me, but eventually received me in the most cordial manner."

Thanks to recorded broadcasts, we have complete performances of Aida, Norma, Ernani, I vespri Siciliani and Guglielmo Tell.  Cerquetti's singing is all over youtube. Her biggest hit is the aria O re dei cieli from Spontini's Agnese di Hohenstaufen. Get going.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Salve o Macbetto!

Verdi: Macbeth Live in hD from the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Fabio Luisi. With Zelko Lucic, Anna Netrebko, Joseph Calleja, Rene Pape.... Seen at Lenox AMC Columbus, October 11 2014


Today for the first time in years I missed my old life in New York. I romanticize those times, but a lot of it was fun, important and the memories irreplaceable.  My new York was still affordable to students. My New York is long gone. My old haunts, Tower Records among them, the  New York City Opera, Hot Woks Chinese, all long gone. Studio apartments rent for $5,000 a month if you can find them. They are not nice apartments. The working class and the creative class seem unwelcome. It's the very very rich and the very very poor.

I'm just home from seeing Verdi's Macbeth, as presented by the Met this afternoon. I wasn't there in person. I saw it on the big screen, live in HD.  It's a murky production, not much to look at, very dark and unimaginatively staged.

What the afternoon did have is what I remembered from the 1980s: buzz, excitement, blood, frisson. It was important, dramatic music theater and it was all about great voices. Anna Netrebko assigned her sex kitten  with a whip persona to a shattering and  glamorous Lady Macbeth. She sang the fearsome role....with no fear. She had guts and beauty and you could tell from Columbus Ohio that her energy burned through the Met. The  vanilla-ization of opera was no here to be seen today. The baritone Lucic is not much of an actor but oh my he sang. It 's a woody baritone voice, not intrinsically beautiful. But he sang the music beautifully, and like La Anna he sang with guts. Rene Pape, what splendid glamor casting for Banquo. There's a beautiful voice. Likewise Joesph Calleja -he brought line and class to a fine "Ah la paterna mano".

Noah Baetge! Remember that name. He's a big boy who sang Malcolm and will soon graduate to the big boy parts.

HD closeups of the Met chorus show that no one cheats at he acting and involvement, not for one moment. And the Met chorus sounded what like hat they are....the best in the world. Likewise of course the peerless orchestra. Fabio Luisi knows his Verdi ad knows that this is one of the most theatrical of composers. The music making was rich and detailed and flew by.

Why do I rave on so? Again, the buzz was back.  Opera became an Event once more. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't adorable and no one was skinny and it was ferocious and fantastic. The audience was stamping and roaring and screaming. That used to happen all the time in my day, when Sutherland, Price, Pavarotti,  Milnes, Domingo, Siepi were regulars. I was wondering what shows these days I would wait in line for. Well, this Macbeth for beginners.

Am I right? Did the guts come back today? I became very nostalgic for my days in New York (1978-1991)...Yeah it was the grad student cliche. Selling records at Barnes and Noble to keep me in ramen noodles, ketchup, three dollar bottles of wine and standing room tickets ($2).  In those pre-9/11 days you could sneak in sandwiches and beer and we'd picnic on the floor at intermissions. I know most of the ushers from my Opera Quiz days. They left us alone. After the show we'd all repair in the late evening to Tower to look at records (RECORDS) and arrogantly and joyfully rip to shreds what had been a splendid evening. Then you'd pair off if you were lucky or go home for another day if you weren't,

My life today is rich, full, exciting and filled with responsibility for which I am prepared. But it is good to remember an earlier time and to realize that those days gone by are creeping back.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Final dress rehearsal tonight.
God bless the Columbus symphony hear them sing the Mefistofele prologue is worth the price of admission. Kudos to them and Ronald Jenkins.

 (This video is dated but gives a few notes of the splendid CSO chorus)

This is going to be a hit.

I don't want to give the rest away.

I DO hope you will come to pre-performance talks with Edwaard Liang, Peggy Kriha Dye and Peter Stafford Wilson (and me!) one hour before each curtain on the 4th floor mezzanine of the Ohio Theater. I was asked to put these together several weeks ago. I'm delighted to comply, since these folks separately and together are the local taste makers and as you will see after each show, they are doing a superb job.

And there seems to be no promotion for these talks (ahem!) which is a shame. My guests always have interesting views and are smart and articulate in expressing them.

Me, I just try not to upset the horses.

In the middle of the night I got up to watch Janacek's From the House of the Dead. I told you I was off my meds! This opera based on Dostoevsky is something I have always wanted to direct. Janacek's searing opera is light years away from Twisted in style and in tone, but not in beauty.

I was told emphatically "Use the cards!" I wrote the narration for Twisted and will be delivering it from the stage. The occasional riff last night would, if I do say so prove a joy to the audience but "interrupts the flow". I'm not convinced but will cheerfully un riff. Nobody'ds fault that I need glasses to read the cards and find them cumbersome. My attempts at memorization have not been very successful. That I am urged to use cards is actually quite generous on the part of the producers. I will say on the record that I could be the Grampa of many of the artists on stage, and I once had great eyesight and a steel trap memory.

Them days are gone.
I love the staging of the Carmen Habanera, the Cenerentola, and he lovely treatment of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. (The perfect opera, what else to say about a title that translates, "That's what they all do")
s a swing on stage. Years ago I saw a great soprano of some girth on a swing duringaAct I of something, and of course one night down on her fanny she went. (She's in heaven now) Never missed a note. THAT is a diva, boys and girls!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Great Gold Curtain
There I was this morning, up early for a doctor appointment-serves me right for running low on the zoloft-then to the gym, then home looking forward to a free morning til the orchestra sitzprobe at 3.30. Frantic were the messages, somebody, not me misread the rehearsal schedule and I was called for 11 a.m. At 11.45 I arrived, thanking God the parking meters take plastic. It was a piano tech rehearsal and "we need your cues." that was nice.

Withal many of the artists on stage were in costume. Muted earth tones and they all look wonderful under the lights. Word is the show is selling like hotcakes. If this show were to be a bust I would tell Columbus to throw in the towel for the arts. As it its, I suspect Columbus will be making huge bath towels for decades. Twisted will be that good.

I don't think the Columbus Symphony is being celebrated enough. With no disrespect to the superb
singers and dancers -I still walk around asking How do you DO that?!?-the Columbus symphony has fought the good fight for sixty years. I intend to lead the cheers during the performances. Peter Stafford Wilson conducts three orchestras and the Tulsa ballet because he knows what he is doing.
The Columbus symphony chorus is a local treasure. Buy tickets for Twisted and find out why.

Something grand
I despair of opera productions today featuring a few pretty people is modern dress--raincoats and shades for God's sake with the occasional I-phone--for Aida, Carmen La traviata you name it. The "great gold curtain: the house curtain no where to be seen, robbing the evening of the nth degree of magic. I'm happy to report that the Ohio theater curtain will be raised (by me!!) and lowered in all its glory. It is so good to be involved in making music-dance-theater complete with a curtain and the ambiance of something grand.

Jimmy Orrante does a splendid job of staging the Act 2 ensemble form Rossini's La cenerentola (Cinderella)-with a few chairs for pros. The staging of the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras 5 is likewise and sad.he Carmen sequences is beautifully sung by Katherine Rhoerer, and you will not soon forget the red fan.

I'm in dressing room 4, fitted to within an inch of my life into simple black and white. I mentioned wearing a small undershirt, cheap spanx and the wardrobe people were unimpressed. I'll  wear it any way. It's better than holding my breath all night.

Piano Tech tonight. 

Monday, September 22, 2014


Production week begins today. If things are going to become harrowing, this is the week. Tech rehearsals tomorrow historically involve a lot of standing around while lights and levels are set. I learned from the wonderful Steven Anderson at CATCO. "Do not piss and moan. People are working hard to make you look good." Steven was more elegant but no less emphatic.

Some very good local news coverage. I got a PS as a broadcaster. Jeez.

I've been plagued by allergies, sneezing, nasal nastiness, bitch of an itch for months. It's all back with a vengeance the past few days. This radio guy who rejoices in crummy thrift shop clothes and pepperoni pizza is entering the week preparing to be seen feeling overfed, sneezy and unlovely.

The dancers will be great to look at though. Their discipline in people so young is intimidating. People may leave the theater raving about the dancers and no one else. That would be a mistake. (I love the dancers) The singers give the evening soul and the orchestra is the beautiful and sometimes ferocious engine. The Columbus Symphony, battered and beaten in recent years through no fault of the players-quality was never an issue-sounds fantastic.
It would have been great to hear the CSO play La mer and maybe have some pantomime behind a scrim, something sensual reflecting the music. Next year. Twisted II.

This is the irst music the audience will her. I don't have the Columbus symphony conducted by Peter Stafford Wilson. You will when you buy tickets. Meanwhile, Bayreuth will have to do:

Meanwhile I've been told to own the stage more (!) I think my detachment is troubling the producers. I'm no good trouncing about with no audience. Come the first night I'm confident no one will be disappointed. Pissed maybe, but not disappointed.
One of my favorite parts of Twised is the lovely Bachianas Brasilieras 5 5 by Villa Lobos . The music is simple seeming and erotic:

To see the choregraphy you have to come to the show!

The very kind stage manager has had the script printed up on small sheets with enter/exit directions
just for me. Last Saturday while hosting the Columbus Dance Theater at Columbus Commons, Tim Veach and I found we had matching $2 readers...ain't no point in my trying to read anything without them. I HAD tried all last week...and wasted a lot of time. Cardinal sin in the theater.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


My script for Twisted began with thumbnail stories of the operas and kudos to each organization: Ballet, Symphony, Opera...and their Artistic consciences: Peggy, Edwaard, Peter. I thought, what could be better and how in the hell is this going to work with these scenes sung, played and danced. I was gently told my script was no good. Then some rehearsal footage-pardon the pun-was made available to me. I saw beautiful people dancing beautifully but did not know how to connect this with what Mozart, Puccini, Bizet et al and their librettists wrote.

There is no way. That's the point! Three art forms have coalesced to make something...else. Something new and beautiful. Audience may be not get it at first but stick around. Mozart will always work his magic, but Mozart danced and sung will create an extra dimension of beauty. So it will be for the entire program. Trust me. I want people to leave the theater with full hearts saying "Only in Columbus..."

Yesterday I was asked to walk the entrances and exits and continue a bit of work with our Don Giovanni. This shouldn't be complicated on the nights (!) What worries me is the need for memorization. I had despaired of being expected to read the script from a music stand, $2 readers firmly clasped on. We all know that wouldn't work-and I'm not going to be in one place all the time. So memorizing the new script (they like this one) it will be. I get to escort a lady from the audience, chat up a singer I love and flirt with two Carmens (not one but two Carmens!)

There's a young woman among the singers, striking looking with a luscious voice. I told her does anyone tell you you look like Maria Ewing...She said you're the fifth one today! She has more voice than Maria Ewing did, talented as she was.

Edwaard told the singers, in your movements on stage show us what is going on with you. With YOU. Become yourself. And don't be afraid to change every performance. Nobody feels the same all  the time. Why should the audience?

I told Edwaard that thirty years ago a buddy and I crashed Balanchine's funeral, at the Russian Cathedral on E. 93 St. in New York. Edwaard told of a dancer he knew who kept a piece of lasagna in her freezer. Balanchine had eaten a bit of it. So every year this dancer would shave off a touch of this lasagna and eat it. Balanchine's lasagna. You gotta love the arts.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Ballet Met Guys Dancing
Yesterday was my first rehearsal for Twisted.

The first thing you notice is that everyone in this show is nineteen and buff.
I hope to God the costume department at Ballet Met has a full set of spanx or man girdles handy
I expect they'll have to order out for some of us whose best dancing years were in the Carter administration.

Edwaard Liang in rehearsal
I was one of those people who said Huh? when the idea of Twisted was first explained to me. Silently I was railing. These people are negating the stories of the operas and the wishes of the composers. What is this ignoring the story just because skinny pretty people can skip around. And what about the Columbus symphony? Are they just the back up band.

No no and no. Stagecraft is the only area in my life where I am conservative. I'm learning a lot from this rehearsal process. All composers have the flexibility built in form their talent so there music and words and dramaturgy can be adapted, or not.

The trio from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte is so sublime, what's to ad? A swing, dancers and singers and the image of a Fragonard painting. Beauty added on beauty. Beautiful it certainly is, and Mozart front and center. Everything I've seen so far enhances the CSO and the music by Mozart, Puccini, Delibes, etc. The ballerinas are Mozart, lovely like flowers.

I spent time yesterday working on the bit leading up to Don Giovanni;'s Serenade as he invites a lovely to come to the window. Deh, vieni al la finestra. You listen to this music and you remember that Mozart was known to pinch his sopranos on the fanny during rehearsals.

I learned as a stage director that when else fails, get a hunky tenor to go out into the house, find an old lady and sit in her lap and sing his big aria. Never fails. We'll be selecting a lady from the audience to come on stage to be seduced. I even get to say, "Not you sir! Put your hand down!"

Then the finale to Mefistofele was rehearsed by Edwaard Liang, with  what looked like the full corps. And the singers. The music is apocalyptic. The angles wrestling Satan to the floor and winning:

From the eternal music of the spheres, in cerulean space immersed/emanates a paean to love supreme, that rises to the thee, through great and sweet harmony. Hail! Hail!

Edwaard Liang's choreography is sexy and reflects a very human chaos, movement and stillness, touching and not touching-the uncertainty of salvation delighting the bodies of the dancers. Remember there will be a large orchestra in the sections on stage and the splendid 100 voice Columbus Symphony Chorus.