Current Listening Obsession: Piano & Cello Sonatas

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I don’t post as often as I’d like to because I usually get caught up in thinking I can’t post till I develop an idea fully or something.  But here’s a quickie.  Having heard an awesome interview with cellist Alisa Weilerstein on Classical Classroom, I’ve been listening to all the cello sonatas I can get my hands on!  Current project:  working my way through all five of Beethoven’s.    Any others I shouldn’t miss?

Troubling Re-Emergence of an Old Sexist Trope


The Opera Evangelist had the privilege of hearing yesterday evening Nicholas Stevens deliver a nuanced and though-provoking lecture on the troubling re-emergence in contemporary opera of the age-old trope of the femme fatale.  One might imagine that 21st Century  artists would be inclined to offer more empowered female leads than the tradition has bequeathed us, but according to Mr. Stevens, a PhD student at CWRU whose forthcoming dissertation examines the roots and contemporary iterations of the trope, recent offerings tend to traffic in the old, exploitative stereotypes.

Mr. Stevens notes that after a 60-year hiatus (1935-1995), the work of contemporary composers tends “to restore and reinvigorate the femme fatale narrative, and the trend isn’t showing any signs of going away.”  The lecture focused on two contemporary operas:  Anna Nicole (comp. Mark-Anthony Turnage, libr. Richard Thomas), based on the life and death by overdose of model and TV personality Anna Nicole Smith, and American Lulu, a Civil Rights era re-imagining of Berg’s opera by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth.

In a wonderful Q&A session after his lecture, Mr. Stevens noted that “It is possible to stage American Lulu in a way that flips the misogynist paradigm on its head,” but at least from the advertising trailer showed during the lecture, early productions have not taken that approach.

So, there’s work to be done, friends.

Homework.  Mr. Stevens mentioned two relevant books which sound like must-reads:




Tristan and Isolde: I’m Not Buying It

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme embrace as the title characters in the Met’s 2016 production of Tristan and Isolde.

I was very excited to attend the October 8 broadcast (Met in HD) of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with my primary opera companion Roger.  After all, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger had been the highpoint of the 2014-15 season for me, and Nina Stemme Continue reading

“This is What They Mean When They Say ‘Bel Canto’”

Norma PreConcert Lecture

Chi non ama Vincenzo Bellini non ama la musica.”—Arrigo Boito

Google Translate renders the Italian bel canto—pathetically—as “nice singing.” Better translated as “fine singing” or “beautiful singing,” the phrase gives its name to a movement of early nineteenth century Italian opera—brought to its apogee by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini—in in which credibility takes a back seat to pure vocal glory. It was Bellini’s work on display as the LA Opera opened its season on Saturday, November 21 with Norma, a three-hour celebration of some of the most beautiful singing—and most accomplished singers—one can find on the stage today. This was definitive bel canto. LA Opera pulled out all the stops in securing four great singers for the principal roles, led by Angela Meade in the title role. In fact, in his pre-concert lecture conductor James Conlon gushed that he’d never seen a Norma with a finer collection of vocal stars.

Bel canto opera is not for everyone. Its stop-everything-and-just-sing quality can feel silly to those who prefer the through-composed works of Wagner and late Verdi. “what is Kerman’s version of the vivid continuous dream?” In his classic The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, novelist John Gardner makes the case that what readers are looking for is a chance to enter a “vivid continuous dream,” and anything a writer does to remind the reader that she is reading breaks the flow of that dream—to the detriment of pleasure and satisfaction. The artificiality of the bel canto opera’s construction—now we’re talking, oh wait, I have a strong emotion, here comes an aria—can have the effect of jarring the audience out of the dream. By contrast, consider the two of the most beloved songs work at the end of Verdi’s Otello. Desdemona’s lovely arias are 1) The Willow Song played as a song that she is recalling from her youth and singing to her, and 2) a Ave Maria, a heartfelt prayer sung as she senses her impending death. Bellini felt no anxiety about breaking the flow of the drama with a show-stopping aria. In Bellini, when a character experiences a strong emotion, times stops so she can sing.

LA Opera’s production is unapologetic, reveling in bel canto glory and giving its star performers, especially Meade and her amazing fellow soprano, the mezzo Jamie Barton, freedom to play, to show off the range and sweetness of their voices. And here it works. In fact, according to Bellini biographer Leslie Orrey, purveyors of bel canto opera have nothing for which to apologize: “The cavatina-cabaletta structure, though abused as was the da capo aria of previous operatic generations, was a legitimate one; provided that it arose out of the dramatic needs of the libretto it was psychologically right, and agreed better with the Italian view of opera than a more homogenous construction would have done. The Italians valued variety of pace more than unity of style, and if we find longueurs in their concerted finales the fault lies in the imperfections of the particular work we are listening to rather than in the ground plan of the form.” In Norma, the beautiful singing is the featured attraction, and the pair of duets in which the sopranos play off of one another in joint celebration of vocal beauty and coloratura fireworks is itself worth the price of admission.

The evening featured some of the most beautifully singing I’ve ever heard live. Leaving Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a head full of Bellini’s melodies, it was easy to agree the assessment of Verdi’s great librettist, Arrigo Boito, that “Chi non ama Vincenzo Bellini non ama la musica.”