Weekly Video #9

In honour of the fact that this opera premiered on this day in 1837 in Napoli, here is Beverly Sills singing the final scene of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.

 

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My Pet Operatic Hates

This morning, Dolce Suono was delighted to read this article by the wonderful blogger Opera Teen. OT has hit the nail right on the head in his rant about distinguishing crossover from genuine opera. This blog post reminded DS of many of her pet hates to do with opera and so here is a brief compilation of some of the worst:

1. People who don’t know what is opera and what isn’t.

This really needs to be made clear, once and for all. The Phantom of the Opera is not an opera. Mozart’s Requiem is not an opera. O sole mio is not an opera. The Ode to Joy is not an opera. (All of these mistakes are genuine).

2. People who think they know about opera but don’t

The one song which always manages to convince people that they are opera aficionados is, for some reason, Der Hölle Rache, from The Magic Flute. There seems to be a firm belief that if you know this aria, you know everything about opera. There is also the belief that this aria can be called either ‘The Queen of the Night’ or ‘The Magic Flute’.  It is appreciated that some people may have trouble remembering the German name, but please, please, please do not think you can get away with referring to it as the name of the character or the name of the opera. Because you can’t.
Also, it’s all very well knowing how a couple of bars of the aria go but if you can’t say who wrote it, then your claim that you know what you’re talking about becomes completely invalid.

3. Katherine Jenkins

The opera singer who has never sung in an opera.

4. People who only like one singer

This is an irritating feature of some people who are opera fans but sadly narrow minded. The attitude that if one singer has performed an aria or a role wonderfully it is not worth even listening to anybody else’s version annoys me immensely. And for some reason, it is quite often Callas who gets mentioned in this way. Everyone should be able to listen to a performer and enjoy their work in its own respect before comparing it to others, even if those others were indeed better.

And finally . . .

5.People who believe that dead/retired/older singers are always better

This one is harder because sometimes its right and we are all guilty of it. But I have always thought that sometimes we should be more hesitant to dismiss singers of our time for ones of the past. There are some singers, such as Sutherland, who just shine out in their areas of the repertoire. But there are others who could be considered comparable but we would never dare to. For example, if you had to choose between the voices of Renee Fleming and Dame Kiri te Kanawa, who would you choose? Just the thought of it prompts the reaction “How dare she compare them?”. We probably all immediately jump (mentally) to te Kanawa and scoff at the fool who dares to mention her in the same sentence as Fleming. But, actually, when you think about it, there’s no reason why the two shouldn’t be compared. But because Renee is a singer of today, we automatically put her behind when comparing her with older singers. Why? Because these opinions are biased. Not saying, obviously, that younger singers are always better. Just that maybe we should think a little before immediately jumping to conclusions. Here’s a video from someone who has dared to make such a comparison:

Ciao!

A little personal post today, just before I leave for Köln.

Firstly, a huge thank you to the wonderful Odd Pavarotti Blog for featuring this blog in a post! If you are here because of that post, then welcome! Hopefully you will enjoy the blog. Also, if there is anyone here who has not yet visited Odd Pavarotti’s awesome blog, then go now! It is the perfect blog for Pavarotti fans and if you are not a Pavarotti fan or you don’t know about him, then you are probably wasting your life. 😛

Secondly, you may have noticed that Dolce Suono has opened a Twitter account. This is where she makes brief updates about life as a teen opera fan, life as a teen, life as an Italophile and tropera (This is a word she invented herself. It is a cross between trams and opera. It is a very pleasing combination and it turns up surprisingly often, particularly in Germany and Austria. This was inspired by her visit to Milan at Easter and her excitement at seeing a tram in front of La Scala (in her own sophisticated words – “Trams are awesome and opera is awesome and La Scala is super-awesome and trams in front of La Scala are super-double-awesome!”). @DolceSuonoOpera often updates Twitter with tropera photos, mostly not her own). If you are on Twitter, please follow, it would really be appreciated! Also, check out some of the people @DolceSuonoOpera follows – they are really awesome!

And Dolce Suono leave you with this (because she needs sleep – leaving for Germany in 2 and a bit hours, at one in the morning):

Weekly Video #6

Dolce Suono realises that she neglected to post a Weekly Video last week and so there will be one today and one tomorrow. There will also be a third (!) on Tuesday because next Sunday DS is away (in Köln. Has anyone else been there?).

So, for today she has chosen Diana Damrau (in honour of the recent good news) singing ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Although this aria never sounds quite the same after you have heard La Stupenda sing it, this is a gorgeous version by Damrau and in the setting of a very interesting (for interesting, read weird) production. And some nice doll acting adds to the humour of this aria.

Big Post of the News of the Week

Even as I type this post, the Echo Klassik Awards are underway in the Konzerthaus Berlin. The hosts this year are Nina Eichinger and Rolando Villazon. There will be performances by Alison Balsom, the Leipziger Streichquartett, Khatia Buniatishvili, David Garrett, Philippe Jaroussky, Anna Prohaska, Erwin Schrott and Klaus Florian Vogt. Other winners (the Meistersingers of Berlin!) include Jonas Kaufmann (19th Century Opera Recording of the Year) for his recording of Fidelio conducted by Claudio Abbadio, Renee Fleming (Female Singer of the Year) for her album Poèmes, Riccardo Chailly (Conductor of the Year) and Daniel Barenboim (Lifetime Achievement Award).  For a full list of the prizewinners and a fun interactive piano, go here.

Dolce Suono is delighted to reveal that Diana Damrau has had another baby. According to unknown sources, it is another boy who is called Colyn. Anyway, a huge congratulations to Diana and her family (the first picture is of her with her son Alexander and the one below that is Alexander with Rolando Villazon)!

Pavarotti’s 77th birthday was on the 12th, two days after Verdi’s 199th (Dolce Suono regrets that she was unfortunately unable to post on the day itself). So, because on the 10th, you were overloaded with Verdi, here is some refreshment in the form of Pavarotti singing one of DS’ favourite arias from one of her favourite operas by one of her favourite composers! A fitting celebration!

And, one last personal note: If you have any thoughts on my posts, please comment and tell me! I would love to hear feedback from any of you who read this blog! Thank you and keep on reading and enjoying opera!

Questa e la maledizione di Tosca!

Everyone knows that in the world of theatre, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a cursed play, only to be referred to as ‘The Scottish Play’. And the operatic equivalent, according to popular belief, is Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”, Tosca. Now, we all know about Tosca’s Kiss. But what about Tosca’s curse? Where has this legend come from? Well, it has come from the many disasters that have happened in productions of Tosca over the years. It’s not hard to see why it’s this opera that gets the blame for being dangerous. What with the gunpowder used for the fake execution and the (hopefully) blunt knife used to stab Scarpia and the candles placed around his body (an obvious fire hazard just waiting to happen) and the offstage screaming and singing and the onstage scuffles and the infamous leap from the battlements at the end, Tosca is, from beginning to end, an operatic danger zone. Let’s have a look at some of the many things which have gone wrong in productions of Tosca since it’s premiere 112 years ago.

  • Let’s start with that most famous of all Tosca disasters; the trampoline, as recounted by Hugh Vickers in his book Great Operatic Disasters.
    “Whereas most such disasters depend on some element of misunderstanding and incompetence among the stage management, this catastrophe is – delightfully- due entire to ill will, in this case between the stage staff and the soprano. With diabolical cunning they permitted her, after several stormy rehearsals, to complete her first performance without mishap until the very last moment, when Tosca throws herself off the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo. What normally happens is that on her cry of “Scarpia, avanti a Dio!”, she hurls herself off and lands on a matress four feet below (who but Callas has ever looked totally convincing at that moment? Her outstretched hands haunt the memory). But in this case it was not Callas but a large young American who landed not on a mattress but – perish the thought – on a trampoline. It is said that she came up fifteen times before the curtain fell, sometimes upside down and then the right way up, now laughing in delirious glee, now screaming with rage.” Now that is truly the operatic way to get even with a bossy diva! Although this story has become buried in popular legend now, it varies hugely depending who tells it. Some say it was an older or more famous diva and some say that she came up 3 or 4 times instead of 15, but at heart it is still one of the treasured tales of the opera world.
  • Less of a disaster and more of an interesting anecdote, there is a tradition of Tosca singing her great aria Vissi d’arte lying on the floor. This can be dated precisely back to the great soprano Maria Jeritza. One night on stage, she tripped and fell while fighting Scarpia. Rather than climb awkwardly back up again to sing, she chose to remain on the floor for the duration of the aria. The director liked this effect and asked her to continue it for the rest of the performances. It eventually became her trademark and was copied by many other sopranos.
  • As Maria Callas tried to wrestle off Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia in a performance in 1965,  her long black wig caught fire from one of the candelabras, much to the horror of the audience. Luckily the quick-thinking Gobbi improvised a fight move on the spot and snuffled out the flame without missing a beat and Callas escaped without injury. They both continued singing and acting as though nothing had happened, but as she stabbed him afterwards, she whispered ‘Grazie, Tito!’ under her breath to him. This story became famous after Gobbi wrote about it in his memoirs.
  • Also in 1965, the tenor Gianni Raimondi suffered burns to his face in a performance in Rome after one of the fake execution bullets was overcharged with gunpowder.
  • Another Maria Jeritza tale – Antonio Scotti, playing Scarpia was once actually hurt when Jeritza stabbed him with the prop dagger. Needless to say, he acted the death scene extremely convincingly and with some very loud exclamations of pain.
  • Live fire on the stage was something that Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was not used to when she started performing in the West in the 1970s. During a Tosca run at the Vienna State Opera Vishnevskaya’s insistence on using her own wig instead of the fire-retarded one furnished by the theater backfired when her tress was ignited by one of the candle. The diva kept on singing, evidently not realizing what had happened, and was shocked when the freshly murdered Scarpia jumped back into life and lunged at her along with the Cavaradossi (none other than one Placido Domingo), who wasn’t even supposed to be in the scene to begin with. The two colleagues successfully put the fire out as the curtain fell and Vishnevskaya suffered only minor burns to her scalp. (Apparently afterwards, in Act 3, Domingo ‘looked as though he might cry’ as he sang O dolci mani to her burnt hands)
  • Eva Marton took an elbow blow to the jaw when fighting Juan Pons as Scarpia at the Met in 1986. However, she soldiered on and managed to finish with a dislocated jaw (although another version of this story says it was her shoulder that was dislocated and she tried to fix it mid-performance by slamming it against the wall)
  • She (Eva Marton) had more Tosca trouble in her final performance of the role at the Met in 1999. She landed on the feather mattress after her suicide jump and it exploded around her. Luckily, nothing was seen by the audience, until she came out for her curtain call – covered in feathers from head to foot.
  • Renata Tebaldi, performing in Tokyo, famously walked offstage, straight past the confused soldiers, rather than jump (Montserrat Caballe once did the same thing, but rather more discreetly)
  • At the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul in 1993 soprano Elisabeth Knighton Printy had a real fright she realized upon jumping off the stage platform that she wasn’t in the right spot where the mattress was placed on the ground to cushion her fall. Thirty feet straight down later the star of the show had knocked herself out of action for the rest of the run with two broken leg and many bruises.
  • Gina Cigna, in Buenos Aires, got away lighter, She took her curtain call bleeding from the forehead after the stage hands forgot to put down a mattress for her
  • During the live broadcast of Tosca, nei tempi, nei luoghi, Placido Domingo fell down the ladder on the painters’ scaffold in Act 1 and crashed into the wall of the ‘Attavanti’ Chapel.
  • An unnamed soprano once broke her ankles during a rehearsal for Welsh National Opera. It ended up in court because the stage director had insisted on a long jump to inadeqate padding, and since the soprano cancelled her performances, the company refused to pay her.
  • In a performance in Italy in the 1990s, the guns did not go off properly and Cavaradossi had to pretend he had been shot by invisible bullets. The ever-sympathetic Italian newspapers celebrated this with the headline ‘Cavaradossi dies of a heart attack
  • This is a brilliant story from the New Orleans Opera in 1978. The physical production had been borrowed from Dallas and did not match the scale of the New Orleans venue. In fact, the Castel Sant’Angelo set was so out of proportion with the dimensions of the stage that the parapet actually touched the background scrim upon which the dawn over Rome was suggested. There was hardly enough room to squeeze a pin cushion back there, much less a mattress
    or gym pads. The production team “solved” this problem by attaching a tiny wooden platform directly under the section of the parapet where Tosca jumps to her death. The Tosca was instructed to simulate a leap, then crouch down on the platform–presumably out of sight of the audience.Unfortunately, someone came up with the bright idea of having a stagehand posted on the platform to assist Tosca with this tricky bit of staging. The poor guy was required to kneel and stoop for the entire act because there was no other access point to the platform besides the parapet itself.  The Tosca was an American mediocrity named Roberta Palmer, whose 15 minutes of fame were about to come to an absurd end. A replacement for the originally scheduled Galina Vishnevskaya, Palmer was not blessed with stage smarts and visibly motioned to the stagehand to get ready for the jump.Suddenly, a flannel-shirted torso rose up and extended his arms to catch the exiting diva. Palmer stepped off the parapet into his waiting clutches and the two quickly ducked down on their tiny perch.By this point, the audience in the highest section of the balcony was in stitches. But nothing could have prepared us for the hilarity that followed.Mistakenly assuming that the curtain had fallen, Palmer and friend *stood up* in plain view of the entire audience. As howls of laughter greeted them, soprano and stagehand darted back beneath the border of the parapet. By that point, however, all semblance of convincing stage illusion had been destroyed.
  • Famous baritone Tito Gobbi, a very original Scarpia, recalled a prima, or premiere, with Maria Callas, in which he had to improvise to save the diva in Act II. While he was on the floor, having just been killed, he realised that Callas was walking around the stage unable to find her way out. She had severe myopia and, while she could wear glasses during rehearsal, her eyes would not tolerate contact lenses. Gobbi tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so intensely that both his laughing and his pointing were seen by the audience. The morning after, the newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death throes. In other performances, he was able to whisper directions to her so that she could make a satisfactory exit.
  • Gobbi also paid tribute to the ferocity of Callas’ acting in this role, noting that he was often afraid during their performances that she really would kill him in Act II. She very nearly did so, when the knife she was using failed to retract. Gobbi was cut, but not severely hurt, and with a cry of “My God!” went right on with his death scene.
  • Tenor Fabio Armiliato had a bad accident during performance as Cavaradossi at the Macerata Festival in 1995 opposite Raina Kabaivanska. One of the guns used in the execution scene was loaded with a bullet that wasn’t quite blank enough and the tenor was hit in the leg with its fragments. Determined to not let the incident faze him, Armiliato turned up to perform in the subsequent performance with the aid of crutches, which promptly broke under him along with his other leg, effectively knocking him out of the rest of the performances. Here is the video footage:
  • There is also a popular story of how a Cavaradossi (opposite Lina Cavalieri’s Tosca) was actually killed by the fake bullets. This is (we hope) almost certainly not true
  • My personal favourite (also taken from Great Operatic Disasters): A group of young and inexperienced college students were used to play the firing squad of Act 3. They were given last minute instructions to “slow march in, wait until the officer lowers his sword and then shoot. And then exit with the principals” (Principals being the standard American stage instruction for minor characters or the leader of a group etc.)  The audience, therefore, saw the following: a group of soldiers marched onto the stage but then stopped dead in its tracks at the sight of two people, not one, as they had assumed – a man and a woman, both looking extremely alarmed. When they pointed their hesitant rifles at the man, he at first drew himself up, looking noble and resigned, but then started giving inexplicable conspiratorial glances at the woman . . . they pointed their rifles at her, but she made a series of violently negative gestures –  but then what else would she do if she was about to be shot? Should they, perhaps, shoot them both? But then they would hardly be standing so far apart – anyway, the opera was called Tosca, it was evidently tragic, the enormous woman on stage was presumably Tosca herself, solemn funereal music was playing, the officer was raising his sword . . .
    Thus it happened. By a perfectly sensible process of logical deduction they shot Tosca instead of Cavaradossi. To their amazement, they then saw the man, some twenty yards away, fall lifeless to the ground, while the person they had shot rushed over to him, crying (we must remember that this was in a vivid American translation) “Come on baby, get up, we gotta go!” What could they do? They had shot one of the principals – though admittedly the wrong one – and their next instruction was “Exit with the principals.”. In disbelief, they watched as, first, Spoletta and his minions burst onto the stage and Tosca – could it be true? – took up her position on top of the battlements. She jumped and there was only one thing for it – as the curtain slowly descended the whole firing squad threw themselves after her . . .
  • And finally, just to round things off:

So, I hope you enjoyed this little (ish) round up of all the Tosca disasters and mess ups I could find.