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Monday, July 13, 2015

Remembering Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio
I've never seen such a dark stage in my life. The blackness was so intense that being in the wings was a hazard. You could step on a mouse, or knock over a light board,  or knock down a beefy stage hand and you didn't want to to do that. I doubt safety rules would allow such a Stygian environment today, but oh my it was dark. The curtain went up on nothing. Utter darkness. I remember hearing a nervous rustling in the capacity audience. It was midnight dark in the theater, too. Had the Boston Edison bill gone unpaid yet again?

There were lights coming from the musicians stands in the pit, but they did nothing to relive the
blackness. I'm here to tell you, it was terrifying being in that theater  that day. You were waiting for an apocalypse.

Then it came. There was a large, tragic chord and a voice cried out from the gloom. "Gott!" To my dying day I won't forget that sound, that word coming out of nothing. It was a tragic sound, huge, strangled, desperate and beautiful. "Gott!" God! "Gott! Welch' dunkel hier"! God! How dark it is! It was one note, this Gott! and it was nothing but despair.

The voice belonged to Jon Vickers. He was singing the tortured Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio, in Boston around 1976. Florestan only sings in Act II. His release from prison is engineered by his wife, who works in the prison disguised as a boy the better to find her husband and bust him out. Which is what happens. But 'Gott!' shook the walls and left the theater long after the happy ending.,


Jon Vickers died on July 10 at 88. He'd had Alzheimer's disease for several years. His, to me was not a beautiful, loving, friendly voice although he could paint in those colors. His was the voice of despair, the voice of the outsider, the voice of long, of hope, of anger and of love. He was known to be a contradictory and a difficult man. He may have been hard to live with. But if you loved words and music, if if you responded to power and sincerity on the stage, Jon Vickers was your man. I was lucky to hear his Otello, his Peter Grimes, shattering, and his Parsifal. To my dying day though, no other artist, not even Callas, punched me in the guts and broke my heart as Vickers did with that one word in Fidelio: Gott! God.


http://www.roh.org.uk/news/canadian-born-tenor-jon-vickers-dies

Friday, June 26, 2015

Opera Project Columbus Cavalleria Rusticana Rehearsal Diary Sixth Entry





I didn't drop dead last night. At least I think I didn't.

I can't take comfort in the hackneyed nonsense "Bad dress rehearsal good performance" because last night we had a very good dress rehearsal. Likewise I'm confident of stellar performances. Last night there were a lot of stops but these 'patching' sessions, while horribly nerve wracking, resulted in musical glory. The detail and love given bar to bar for this 200 plus page score can be excruciating to watch and glorious to hear.




Alessandro Siciliani, conductor of Cavalleria Rusticana this weekend. Devastating devotion

Those of us doing this work at a periphery, without the years of total absorption in music and drama, hear the clock ticking and breaks approaching and mental lists of all that will be left unattended and undone, find it easy to lose respect for the score of Cavalleria Rusticana and its drama. I doubt Mascagni himself had such painstaking musical preparation for the opera's premiere in 1890. I wonder what he thought, over the rest of his long life, when it became clear that none of his subsequent works would enjoy the success of Cavalleria, his first opera, written in his twenties. If worked all his life with the intensity, with the drama and the love I have seen over the past few weeks,  he must have been tormented by a few successes d'estimes and a few more downright flops.


I have a new respect for the work-akin to ditch digging, which I've done-involved in preparing a
performance like Opera Project Columbus will present tonight and Sunday. There are people who torment themselves out of respect for the music and the words. I don't have that talent. OPC has been privy to such dedication. You wills see and hear the results beginning tonight.

Visually, I am so proud of this company. They looked splendid. We have a lighting designer who had colored in the pictures with glory.Our thirty plus chorus still sounds like a fine eighty plus chorus. The orchestra is digging in, and singing. I am running around accomplishing little, and sucking down bite size Milky Way bars like they are Vicodin. Where are the guys for the procession? Where's the light cue? Is this the rope for the curtain? What to do about the two principals who showed up last night late and didn't give a shit? Can the people on stage remove their glasses? Can the chorus remember to get in the light?

Yes, I worked hard to establish some sort of vision for the piece. I was disappointed that musical values presented me from a lot of moves on which I had high hopes. Never mind. The point is the score and the point is the audience and both points are and will be wonderfully served.

Here's another artist whose devotion is like what I've been experiencing these past few weeks:




Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Opera Project Columbus Cavalleria Rusticana Rehearsal Diary Fifth Entry

Laura Pederson (Santuzza) Jesus Daniel Hernandez (Turiddu) Susan Millard Schwartz (Mama Lucia) Jamie Hartzell (Lola) Robert Kerr (Alfio)  photo: Ken Snow


Last night was our first rehearsal in the performance space, the gorgeous McCoy Performing Arts Ct., in New Albany. Watching the piano stage run through with on stage furniture,  it really happened. Oh my but our chorus sounds splendid. Santuzza marked and was more powerful than most artists at full throttle. Out tenor is a hunkmeister a l'italianita and he sounded great. Everyone was great. What a blessed production.


Chorus moves were simplified. It had been my intent to avoid choral stand up and sing at all costs. We've worked around that be harping on each chorister playing their own character. Write a back story. Who are you? Are yo married? Employed? How many children? Are you widowed? Do you screw around?  Do you love your children? Do you hate your mother? Und so weiter. That and encouraging focal points for the chorus, which inevitably keeps he audience's eyes on them.

When  I began staging opera scenes I had people running around and moving all. the. time. Now I've learned the best lesson. Less really is more. If the opera is strong the music will do most of the work.

If you keep people running around and you ignore the music you risk running over into Christopher knowing better than Mascagni/Verdi/Mozart/Puccini/Wagner/Strauss. From there its a short walk to ignoring the opera and staging what you want the piece to be, instead of what it is.

Yeah I know, you are euphoric the morning after. Tonight is the orchestra sitzprobe. We heard the orchestra last night for the first time. They rehearsed in a separate space. I looked in. It seemed like a small band but they played big. Not loud. Loud is easy. Anyone can play loud. Look up 'loud' in the dictionary and damned if you don't see my picture. This orchestra played, big and played with meaning. It's as if each played had internalized the beauty of the music and the brutality of this opera's plot.

Out conductor had a wonderful newspaper profile last Sunday. There is unending interest in him in this community, and the paper will fan these flames.

I despair  of people in my own life who insist "Opera is not for me." Yes it is. Opera is for the world. It's a tough stereotype to crack, this fat people screaming nonsense. Has it ever been true? I don't think so. I've been going to the opera since 1968. Yes, there have been large people-but do we need Sutherland, Pavarotti and Horne to be skinny? I heard e'm all and will never, but never forget them. The great 'legends' really were great in person. Their voice has all the presence, power and warmth only hinted at in recording. Sutherland in Norma would knock your tits off. You can listen to the recording and marvel and the great singing, but live in the theater you'd marvel and be knocked back just by the sound.

Here's an example of fat people who never move screaming at one another: Not.



Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca, Royal Opera, London, 1964.


Our stage manager, who has worked in the theater for 40 years said to me last night "These people are really actors who sing." That's a nice compliment. Just what an opera like Cavalleria needs. Our principals and our chorus really believe this story, and it shows to the eye and to the ear.

Cavalleria rusticana began life as a sort story by Giovanni Verga. Verga adapted his tale into a play. All of this before Mascagni wrote his opera. It is the opera that lives on today. Over 100 years ago, the play stayed in the repertoire along side the opera.

I want you to look at this face:

Eleanora Duse

Duse as Santuzza
The actress Eleanora Duse Duse (1858-1924). She was the first Santuzza-in the play. To Mascagni's public, this title meant Eleanora Duse, a great actress, not an opera singer. Many people had probably seen her in this play. If you look at  the photo on the right, don't you SEE Santuzza on her face?  That face is what Mascagni strove to capture in his music. He did, while creating a character with another  dimension, music.

Get your fannies to Cavalleria Rusticana..THE OPERA!-June 26 and June 28 McCoy Ctr., New Albany.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Opera Project Columbus Cavalleria Rusticana Rehearsal Diary Fourth Entry




The first Santuzza and Turiddu were soprano Gemma Bellincioni and her husband Roberto Stagno. Both were huge stars in late 19th century Italy. Bellincioni had become Verdi's favorite Violetta in La traviata. Stagno, who died young, was a very handsome tenor with a huge following. Recordings nearly 120 years old do neither justice. Remember they were singing brand new music in a new medium nobody trusted. It was a fluke, a joke. Recording wasn't yet taken seriously.






Roberto Stagno and Gemma Bellincioni, the first Turiddu and Santuzza

June 18, 2015

At the end of last night's rehearsal we were all exhausted. We've had a very intense few days of work. The last two rehearsal were productive, difficulty-for the right reasons-and rewarding as the show visually and aurally takes shape. Our conductor can transform a fine chorus into a world class ensemble in five minutes. He's done it more than once over the past week, whether rehearsing the opening "Gli ranci olezzano sui verdi margibni" or the Easter Hymn.

I don't mind telling you that I love this chorus, and several of its members are becoming increasingly dear to me. Great work and good spirits,in spite...

We've done a lot of work really delineating the Santuzza-Turiddu relationship. I see her as a bit more evil than does our leading lady. I think Santuzza transitions fast as Turiddu leaves and Alfio enters from scorned victim to vengeful spirit. OK not a malevolent harpy, but I think she knows what shes doing to Turiddu when she spills her guts to Alfio. One of the things I love about our Santuzza is the guts with which she sings and inhabits her role. It's good to disagree a bit in a friendly fashion. I learn from this. It's wonderful to have a handsome Turiddu who sings well and who last night began to show some vulnerability and variety in his performance. I believe Santuzza has her share of cruelty and Turiddu his share of conscience.


As I watched our rehearsal last night I saw Cavalleria rusticana begin to take shape as Opera Project Columbus's music drama. We won't have the the physical space for the chorus until we move into the theater next week. By then, when they can move a bit and show themselves tot he public, I'll be help to help flesh out individual characters. Musically the show is already a knock-out.


Mascagni (center) with his librettists Targioni-Tozzetti (r) and Mesaci




Our Alfio is making the cuckolded carter a leading role. He asks me, who else sings Alfio. A lot of the 'names' avoided this part. I wonder why? He gets a great entrance, and vengeance seen to curl your tits. Robert Merrill recorded the role and said he hated it. I don't think Sherrill Milnes ever performed Alfio. Lawrence Tibbett and Cornell MacNeil refused the role. It may not be an accident that two great performances of Alfio were done by Italian baritones-Tito Gobbi and Ettore Bastianini. Bastianini was a very handsome man with a huge, beautiful voice. Gobbi was not handsome and his voice was undistinguished. But-there was no greater singing actor in his day. His Scarpia in Tosca was sexy and terrifying. All you need to make anything a leading role is talent.

TITO GOBBI (!916-1984)




ETTORE BASTIANINI (1922-1967)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqyjWB6flds


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Opera Project Columbus Cavalleria Rusticana Rehearsal Diary Third Entry

June 16, 2015

The wide world of opera lived up to its old time reputation for torrents of emotion and hissy fits at last nights rehearsal. Not even a bag of Snickers bars supplied to me by the wonderful choral director prepared us all for Vesuvius and a tantrum rivaling any three year old you'd care to name. There was a walk out, screaming and gnashing of teeth, and apparently relentless phone calls. Even I raised my voice. Yes, I know that's hard to believe.

Once resumed, the rehearsal was doomed by a power failure. Lights out all the way to Weber Rd. In short, nobody rehearsed last night. That's not to say there wasn't a show. But Cavalleria, indeed any opera, has better tunes.

Tonight I've asked for an early half hour top lock in the Turiddu-Santuzza duet. Since its just the two of them on stage it's important to let them flow physically with the music. EXCEPT one can't use hand signals that direct traffic.  I like a ballsy, angry Santuzza with nothing apologetic about her. Even the the "No, no Turiddu" is lovely music and instant pathos, I find myself tiring of her if she seems to whine. It's entirely possible to perform any words and music combo as written and still put on your own 'spin'. For me, Santuzza is a woman very much trying NOT to be a victim. She keeps banging on the door demanding to be admitted.

Likewise Turiddu, who seems to have no guilt vis a vis Santa, is living in hysteria. He is caught in a matriarchy he knows will punish him for putting his cazzo where he will. Turiddu changes the minute Alfio comes on stage. In his last half-hour, he grows up.

Listen to this blistering performance from 1932. Beniamino Gigli and the American soprano Dusolina Gianini:







Astrid Varnay
Many years ago I was doing the poor student tour of Europe. I was in Munich. I tried my luck for tickets to Cavalleria Rusticana at the National Theater. Placido Domingo and Leonie Rysanek. I managed a student ticket and tipped an usher for a better seat. I didn't have time to study the program. I noticed the Mama Lucia, a plump older lady, looking every bit the stereotypical Italian Nonna. She peeled potatoes for most of the opera. And I mean SHE PEELED POTATOES. She listened, completely in character, totally in the moment. You have to be pretty tough to divert attention from Domingo and Rysanek, who were both sensational. But I had to know the name of the comprimaria doing Mama. The voice sounded old. And there it was. Astrid Varnay was one of the world's great singing actresses, Bayreuth's Isolde and Brunnhilde, a fabulous Elketra, now doing character parts in Munich. If her name had been Susie Schmidt I would still remember her performance. I never heard Varnay in her prime. But I sure as hell SAW her.




Monday, June 15, 2015

Opera Project Columbus Cavalleria Rusticana Rehearsal Diary Second Entry

June 15, 2015

Saturday I met the chorus for the first time. Thirty people sounded like eighty. After a couple of rehearsals these good people made a terrific sound. Their singing got my juices going. Good thing too, because the choral conductor thinks I'm nasty and it got very hot indeed-weather wise-in the rehearsal room., The choral director is a sweet guy and very talented. I told the assembled, Don't listen to him. I'm the nicest goddamn SOB that ever lived.

photo: Ken Snow
The rehearsal space hampered completely spreading
 the chorus out enough to do proper entrances and exits. They were game, and we approximated as best we could. I soaked up their sound with joy.
The principals had a photo shoot in the sanctuary of the large church where we were rehearsing. I had a peek upstairs. What a beautiful sanctuary! All old wood. Linda told me her grandmother used to take her to this church. It's a beauty.



Back to the staging. I assigned 'spouses'. I sounded like Judge Judy. YOU ahhhr married to HUH! I said The fellas don't want to go to church. They want to sit in Mama's Cafe, play cards, drink and gossip. Most of all the want to be senza spose. Just for a bit. Remember Sunday is the only day of rest. And yes, I will work on the chorus having specific identities. I gave them motivations they seemed to enjoy. The aforesaid for the men. For the women, though they are in church, its a "morning off" for them as well. Remember the church and the plaza are the two meeting places for neighbors who live miles from one another. For six and a half days every week you work dawn to dusk, you take care of children,you take care of men and nobody has much to say to anyone else. Save it for the piazza. Thus a sense of freedom. Libera me!

A note about church. The sense of religion is based more on superstition than true piety. We pray , we go to church, we try to believe because it is necessary culturally. Its like praying for rain. You do it when you need it, but would rather do it than be sorry you didn't.

We tried the choral staging in the sanctuary. I had my heart set on a procession that didn't work. It's musically tricky and the chorus couldn't see the maestro. The chorus is the center of this show.  This is a big ass choral opera. Le gente. The people. Everything that happens to the principals depends on a reaction from the chorus. Even the pivotal Santuzza-Turiddu duet, alone on stage, can be at least sensed by the chorus. Santuzza is an outcast for being pregnant. Turiddu dies for breaking the social codes. Alfio may be seen as a brute, but to his neighbors, he's right.

But I want to avoid oratorio for this!I don't want stand up and sing! You know what, he asked with too many exclamation points??!!?! The Regina coeli at least, IS stand up and sing.

You may ask, does the stage director feel like low man? Sometimes. I tell young singers you need to be pay careful attention to the words. They do. But in a big ensemble, the music must have pride of place. The music is the first element to touch an audience.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Opera Project Columbus: Cavalleria Rusticana Diary First Entry



Opera Project Columbus presents Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana at the McCoy
Center for the Arts in new Albany, June 26 and 28th .

Alessandro Siciliani conducts

Your humble servant-that would be me-directs.



Here's a welcome from the composer, Pietro Mascagni, from the his recording of the complete opera made in  1940:






Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the audience. I am Pietro Mascagni.  I would like to tell you about my Cavalleria which is now fifty years old.  As memories of it are closely linked with many gestures of appreciation, I was unable to resist the offer I received from 'His Master's Voice'  thus I decided to present the complete work, which appears for the first time in recorded form under my personal direction.  My work, brought to life by the most celebrated artists, collaborating with orchestral and choral talents unrivaled in the world today, will perpetuate my memory better than any signed portrait.  I have signed many autographs, but none with greater pleasure than this, the most vivid of them all, representing me a it does in the double role of conductor and composer.  I great you warmly before raising my baton.  


The conductor is responsible for what you hear
The director for that you see.
Ideally the two work well together.
AS and I DO

Or eventually do, as this diary please God will attest

But the drama of tale this tale of adultery and vengeance on a  Easter Sunday morning in Sicily is nothing compared to the machinations just far.

Rustic chivalry, my ass.

I have had one staging rehearsal. The cast is quite attractive, with excellent voices. I liked to going around pouting that  Opera Project Columbus should stay away from these Italian potboilers. Guess what? I love these Italian potboilers. Mascagni in Cavalleria has written not a short opera but a concentrated opera. There's not a wasted word or note. Musical scene painting begins immediately with Turiddu's arrogant and lovely off stage Siciliana..O Lola...if I ever get to heaven , and find you are not there, I would not stay.

There's Santuzza, the wronged woman, pregnant and abandoned in favor of the now married Lola.
Giovanni Verga, author of the short story, Cavalleria rusticana, upon which Mascagni based his opera
This is a piss lot earthier than Charles-Diana and Camilla. In this society, Santuzza is an outcast and Turiddu thinks he can get by on charm and sex. And he very nearly does. It's Santuzza who gives up Turiddu to a jealous husband. In the off stage knife fight, sealed not with the mafioso kiss of death but with one man biting the other on the ear, we lead to a crushing finale. A woman screams offstage, and then runs on to cry Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu! They have killed neighbor Turiddu.

The director will underline Mascagni's music depicting the every Sunday, Easter celebrations with a sense of foreboding, that something terrible is about to happen. Nobody quite knows what. The chorus is oblivious until a splendid moment toward the end. It's clear that Alfio and Turiddu will fight til the death. Lola, who has been flippant up til this moment, is ushered off stage by a group of women. 'Comare Lola, andiamo, via di qua. Lots of E flat., The line is simple and very tragic. Neighbor Lola, let's get away from here. This while the sun shines on Easter morning.

Soprano Lina Bruna Rasa became Mascagni's favorite Santuzza later in his life. She was schizophrenic, and would be signed out of an asylum to perform. Her bloodcurdling style puts the words and the tragedy first.




Oh yeah, the rehearsals. The chorus is learning lustily. Nice people singing beautifully who will become earthy peasants in a menacing, closed society. My handsome tenor poses a bit a la Jose Cura. He does not emulate that worthy to the extent of singing with his back turned, thus to display a splendid gluteus maximus (maximii?) We have a fine looking Santuzza with a big voice, a sexy Lola and a scary Alfio. Mama Lucia to me is the glue in this opera. She has the fewest line and needs to be the unifying presence of the entire piece. That's the first thing I've learned about directing Cavalleria

So, as of today, Mama Lucia's father has died, Turiddu is off singing a concert for a week, the understudy Turiddu bailed, and we are switching rehearsal pianists.
I've already staged as much a I can in a church basement. The singers walked into walls , walked into each other and walked into me, while singing passionately the while.  Yet to come are pacing out the musical bridges in something approximating theater space We are two weeks from performances.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) wrote many more operas after Cavalleria. You never hear most of them. I've been listening to Iris. It's a Japanese setting pre-Madama Butterfly. Sensational music. Th opening chorus alone is splendid.  I asked Alessandro why this opera is never done. He pointed out some fine music and a ridiculous book. Iris jumps into a sewer and lingers there, transformed...a shitty liebestod...literally!

MORE TO COME. STAY TUNED.