Gaie comari di Windsor

Falstaff goes courting the ladies of Windsor.
The great French baritone Victor Maurel
who created Verdi’s Iago and Falstaff.

When I first heard it I remember being puzzled by Falstaff.  This wasn’t the Verdi  I worshiped and adored: the Verdi of the soaring aria, the tearful father-daughter duets or the grand ensembles.  This was a Verdi of parlando, ariosi that came and went quickly, quartets that turned into duets that became octets, all with nary a pause for breath or applause.  And to my youthful ears (I was 11 or 12 at the time) it was all pretty unmelodic and didn’t really sound the way opera should.  It seemed that Verdi was reverting to the style of Monteverdi or Cavalli – composers whose works I was also struggling with at the time.

Now to be fair two things – well okay three if you consider my youthful ignorance – should be taken in to consideration.  First:  Falstaff was a work that went largely unperformed in the venue I had access to at the time – the Met broadcasts and tours, and the Canadian Opera Company.  Second: The only recording I had at hand was the famous and much lauded Toscanini version.  To many this may sound like apostasy but I have grown to dislike Toscanini’s Falstaff.  Yes I know he has a direct link with the work but I find his performance driven, brittle and utterly lacking in humour – much like the man himself.  I was to discover that there was more joy, wit and humanity in the piece than in almost any other opera I had ever heard.

Falstaff was a signature role for Geraint Evans – seen here in
1964 at the Met.  Falstaff bemoans the unfairness of life after
his dunking in the Thames.

Part of that realization came in 1964 when I journeyed to New York to see the first performance the Met had given in over twenty years.  It was at the old house, the production was by a young Franco Zefferelli and the cast though less than stellar had been molded into a cracker-jack ensemble by Leonard Bernstein, making his debut at the house.  Apparently I was mistaken – the old man from Busseto knew exactly what he was doing.

Performances became more frequent – even the COC did it for the first time back in 1982 with Louis Quilico; more recordings appeared led by many of the great conductors: Von Karajan, Solti, Bernstein, Guilini, Davis, Abbado and Muti.  Though none were perfect – if such a thing could exist – all were to reveal – to my ears – the autumnal as well as comedic subtleties and colour of the miraculous collaboration between Shakespeare, Boito  and Verdi.

Louis Quilico as Falstaff with the COC in 1982.

After the COC in ’82 I though I was to hear many records and see several productions on TV or DVD I wasn’t to see another live performance until Rome in 2010 – a production that I wrote about at the time.  Even for all its drawbacks I came out of the theatre that December evening and walked back home in the crisp early morning air – the Zefferelli scene changes added almost an hour to the performing time – feeling that all was right with the world.

After attending the COC’s most recent production last Friday night I came out of the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto feeling much the same way.  What I had seen was in no way perfect but it left me feeling that despite all the troubles in the world, despite what the media was reporting, despite any personal peeves I might have at the moment, there was still much that was right with the world. 

Gerald Finley made his first appearance as Verdi’s Fat Knight last Friday
evening at the opening of the COC season.  It was a more than auspicious
role debut and it is a performance that will only grow richer as time goes by.  

Hopefully by the end of the week I will have gathered my thoughts on Friday night’s performance and written a bit more about it.

October 7 – 1919: KLM, the flag carrier of the Netherlands, is founded. It is the oldest airline still operating under its original name.

Salzburger Zeitung 2014 #3

Though the food, wine and sights of Salzburg are part of what draws me back so often to this lovely city, central to it all has always been the music.

Whither it was in those early years for the Summer Festival, the Mozart-werk one winter or the visits to the Pfingstenfestspeile that started in 2008 the main attraction has always been the music – and the music makers.

As with any Festival there are going to be banner years and then there will be times when the stars – both astrologically and musically – don’t quite align.  I’m afraid this year was one of the later.  Given the line-up of performers and works being performed it should have been a success but there was something that didn’t quite work.  Perhaps it was the effect of the numerous last minute cancellations for the Stabat Mater and the Rossini Gala; perhaps it was the less than sparkling conducting in the two operas (more of which later); perhaps it was the poor choice of venue for the Otello  – even Verdi’s version, as I recall from 1971, did not sit all that well on the sprawling stage of the Grosses Festspeilhaus; or perhaps it was simply that the programme didn’t gel the way it was intended to.  Of the six Pfingstenfestspeils we have attended this was the one that had the the least impact musically and left the least impression.

June 8, 2014 – Religiously Rossini

Unlike many of his contemporaries Rossini did not have to rely on the church for his commissions.  He had been a church singer as a child and written several small pieces (a lovely Cantemus domino and the Faith, Hope and Charity triptych) but things of a religious nature – masses, te deums and canticles, Aves and Salves, those corner stones of church music – he composed little.  And oddly, for a composer known for the speed at which he wrote,  the two major “church” pieces that are most often performed took an inordinately long time to complete.  We were to hear both those pieces on, appropriately,  Whitsunday.

Stabat Mater/Libera me – Grosses Festspielhaus 12:00 Uhr

A photo-montage created of Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini.
Photo Shop in Paris in 1860. akg-image/De Agostini Picture Lib./A. Dagli Orti

This midday concert had been plagued by cancellations: of the four scheduled soloists only one, Erwin Schrott, actually performed.  As I mentioned previously, several days before the concert the Festival sent out a notice that due to illness Krassimira Stoyanova and Piotr Beczala had been forced to cancel; and that Elīna Garanča felt it was too soon after her encouchement to return to singing.  Maria Agresta, Lawrence Brownlee and Sonia Ganasssi had graciously agreed to replace their ailing colleagues.  Not a bad set of replacements – though it was interesting to note that all three have very different voices from the singers they were replacing – particularly Brownlee.

I’m not sure if this – or the acoustics in the Grosses Festspeilhaus – was the reason that on several occasions Antonio Pappano and his Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia overpowered the soloists.  In more than one post I have expressed my fondness and admiration for Santa Cecilia – they were my “home” orchestra for four years but I have also remarked on more than one occasion that Pappano does have a tendency to occasionally pull out the stops and swamp his singers.  However in the past the Orchestra and Chorus  have given me quite a few memorable moments and  I will include this concert – and the one that followed – amongst them, particularly in the Verdi Libera me.

A facsimile of Verdi’s  autograph score of the 1869 Libera Me composed for the unperformed
Messa per Rossini.  Later it was to become the starting point for his 1874 Requiem.

Verdi wrote this first attempt at a passage for a Requiem in 1868-9 as his contribution to a commemorative Messa per Rossini  that had been commissioned by Giulio Ricordi as an observation of the first anniversary of the death of the Swan of Pesaro.  Each section of the Requiem was to be composed by a different hand and Verdi choose and completed the concluding words.  Unfortunately a combination of political, financial and “artistic” difficulties meant the mass was never performed.  Verdi was to use the Libera Me as the foundation of his 1874 Requiem to commemorate the death of Alessandro Manzoni.

My friend David mentioned that he had heard Maria Agresta in the difficult and thankless role of Abaigaile in Nabucco in Palermo and asked if, in my opinion, this was the right repertoire for her.   I wasn’t sure if he meant the Verdi or the Rossini but frankly she seemed more comfortable in the later than the former.  Given the late replacement she may not have had enough rehearsals in what is a tricky hall but she didn’t seem to have the power to ride over the chorus and orchestra.  There was an emotional coolness in her performance – in my mind this work needs some fire and brimstone:  we aren’t talking redemption here but being saved from hell fire!  Though by the end she had gained power for that final pleading cry of Domine.   There is nothing quite like the Santa Cecilia Chorus in either its hushed entry after that frightened and frightening soprano entry or in full cry of terror at the day of wrath – I have heard them in the complete Verdi  Requiem three times and this is music that is in their soul and it shows forth even in this brief piece.

Antonio Pappano, soloists and the Orchestra e coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia accept the applause after Sunday’s performance of a Verdi/Rossini programme at the 2014 Whitsun Festival.   (Photo: Sylvia Letti – Salzburg Festival)

The Rossini Stabat Mater also had a difficult birth: Rossini composed it on commission from Manuel Fernánde Varela.  Rossini revered the Pergolesi setting of the medieval hymn and did not wish to be seen as challenging the older composer.  One of the conditions of the commission was that the manuscript remained with Varela and was not to be published.  Ill health meant that he had not completed the work by the time of its scheduled premiere on Good Friday, April 5, 1833 and half the piece was composed by Rossini’s friend Giovanni Tadolini. Rossini was not to complete the work until 1841 and the work that premiered, to great acclaim, on January 7, 1842 was all Rossini.

Again I’m not sure if it was my seat in the Grosses Festspielhuas – about half way back centre – or perhaps a question of balance because of the change of voice timbres from the originally announced singers but there were several instances when again Pappano’s orchestra overpowered his singers. This is not to say that it was less than satisfactory performance though perhaps not as self-satisfying as Schrott seemed to find it.

Maria Agresta, Sonia Ganasssi, Antonio Pappano, Lawrence Brownlee and Erwin Schrott seem as
pleased as their audience was with this performance of the Rossini Stabat Mater. (Photo: Sylvia Letti – Salzburg Festival)

I have heard more powerful Cujus animam than Brownlee’s but I doubt I will ever find one that touched the heart so closely – the piercing sword was one of sorrow.  Sonia Ganassi is a singer that I heard and enjoyed often during our years in Italy however the last few times I heard her she seemed to have developed a roughness to her singing – whatever the problem was it has been overcome and she was back to a sound like black velvet shot with silver.  Her voice blended well with Agresta in the Quis est homo and both singers gave fine accounts of their respective aria – though again a touch more fire from Agresta in the Inflammatus would not have gone amiss. Schrott (Hot Schrott to his many admirers) gave a heft to the Pro peccatis – rather amusingly being a tall athletic man he  towered over his colleagues and conductor and seemed to take secret delight in it.

Once again the Coro di Santa Cecilia proved to be the backbone of the performance particularly in the hushed delicacy they brought to the lovely “paradisi gloria” passage of the final quartet and chorus.  Aside from those odd moments when the balance favoured the orchestra Pappano conducted a good if,  perhaps, not Festival standard performance.

Petite Messe Solennelle – Stiftung Mozarteum – Grosser Saal – 17:00 uhr


Pappano, Brownlee and a small group of the Coro were on double duty for the day with a performance of the Petite Messe Solennelle  scheduled just a few hours after they had finished the midday Stabat Mater

As has often been said the work is neither “petite” nor particularly “solenelle” – however it was intended more as a chamber work.  Rossini had set it for 12 singers including four soloists accompanied by two pianos and a harmonium.  It was meant for a church setting however the Papal ban on mixed choirs in church (castrated men where acceptable – fully equipped women not!) meant that it could not be performed as a liturgical act.  Rossini had been in correspondence with Pius IX in an attempt to get the ban lifted but without success.  Fortunately the edict did not apply to private chapels and the first performance took place in the personal chapel of Count and Countess Pillet-Will.  It was intended for family and friends – with Auber, Meyerbeer and Thomas being amongst the later.

The title page of the autograph manuscript of the Petite Messe Solennelle – Rossini specifies the
number of singers and instrumentation he intended. In 1866-67 Rossini expanded the work
for performance by larger forces and orchestra.

The work was  orchestrated by Rossini in1866-67 but the first performance of this expanded version did not take place until three month’s after his death on February 28, 1869 – the closest date to his birthday in a non-leap year.  For the Festival performance Pappano choose to use the original chamber version with a larger chorus and four soloists.  Though the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum may not be as “homey” as the chapel chez Pillet-Will the atmosphere was still intimate.

Pappano led from the piano (Pamela Bullock was the second pianist and Ciro Visco, the chorus master, played the harmonium) and in the Offertorium Ritornelle proved to be an accomplished pianist.   It was a simple, clean and intimate performance – just as Rossini intended.

Michele Pertusi, Lawrence Brownlee, Vesselina Kasarova, Eva Mei, Pamela Bullock, Antonio Pappano and
Ciro Visco acknowledge our applause after the Whitsunday performance of the Petite Messe Solonnelle
Several members of my beloved Coro di Santa Cecilia are in the background.  (Photo: Sylvia Letti – Salzburg Festival)

There is a quote somewhere – attributed to I know not who – that all this work requires is a small space (√ the Grosser Saal) two pianos ( √ Pappano and Pamela Bullock), a harmonium (√ chorus master Ciro Visco) a small chorus (√ Coro di Santa Cecilia) and the four greatest singers on earth …..  there we run into a slight problem.  Eva Mei, Vesselina Kasarova, Lawrence Brownlee and Michele Pertusi are all well-known names in opera circles and are fine singers all but on this occasion two of them seemed out of their element.  I knew Mei by reputation and a TV-cast of La Traviata live from Zurich Central Railway Station which I recall enjoying but here found her voice pinched and colourless.  Perhaps Pertusi needs a character to hide behind: on stage he can be dynamic but on the three times I have seen him in concert he has proven, as he did here, bland and one dimensional.  If the day’s double duty gave Brownlee any problem it wasn’t obvious here – an exceptionally fine nuanced performance that was matched by the artistry of Vesselina Kasarova who’s Agnus Dei embodied everything that Rossini put into this  “last of my péchés de vieillesse“.

And again that remarkable choir from Santa Cecilia proved the backbone of the performance:  joyful, rambunctious (is there anything jollier than that Cum Sancto Spiritu?) and quietly – almost whisperingly – reverential.  And as a sidebar there was an entire cheering section from the larger Coro behind me greeting their colleagues with bravi and foot stomping – as indeed had the audience.  One of the ladies had to tell me that they were part of the Coro; when I said I had lived in Rome and heard every concert they had given during that time and how much I thought of them she gave me a kiss on the cheek and said: Grazie.  A rather nice way to end a performance that was seemed indeed to be for family and friends.

Postscript:  In his preface to the work Rossini wrote:

Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass—is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!

Why do I think if I had one of those mythical dinner parties he would be amongst the guests I would want at table?

July 13 – 1814: The Carabinieri, the national gendarmerie of Italy, is established.

Mercoledi Musicale

I know that the commemoration of what would have been the 90th birthday of Maria Callas was two days ago but thought I’d wait a day or two as the internet was awash with tributes on December 2.

As a young opera queen goer I was not a big Callas fan – my taste ran more to (gasp!) Renata Tebaldi for Verdi-Puccini and Joan Sutherland for the bel canto.  I did have – and oft played – her Mad Scenes recording with its famous Anna Bolena finale.  That I had to admit was pretty damned exciting stuff.  She only made two appearances in Toronto during her career: once on October 21, 1958 when she performed in concert at the mammoth Maple Leaf Gardens hockey rink and again during her, sadly unsuccessful, farewell concert with Giuseppe di Stefano on February 21, 1974 at old Massey Hall.  

My appreciate of her came later in my opera-going life, long after she had retired from both singing and public life.  I came to realize that there is more to singing than beautiful sound – there is the ability to take a piece of music and with it create a vast array of emotions in the listener.  The sounds may not always please the ear but they touch the heart – and perhaps more to the point the gut.   I recently heard it explained that Callas was a “great artist” not necessarily a “great singer”.  I think I know what the commentor was getting at – particularly as she ran into more and more vocal difficulties after 1958.

Though she sang Puccini and Verdi on stage, notably Tosca, La Traviata and Macbeth, she was best known for her bel canto roles – Anna Bolena, La Sonnambula, Norma, Il Pirata.  However in the recording studio she committed many of the Puccini and Verdi roles to disc.  Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello was a role she never sang on stage and only recorded excerpts from in 1963.  By that time the voice was in decline – a decline that many claimed had started as early as 1955 – but that ability to take a piece of music and with it create a vast array of emotions was still there.  Some may not consider it great singing but no one can deny that it is great, and moving, artistry.

As her gentlewoman Emilia brushes her hair, Desdemona prepares for bed and she recalls a song that Barbara, a maid of her mother’s sang after she had been deserted by her lover.  Frequently she breaks off to refer to the poor jilted mad girl; at one point the wind at the shutters frightens her; as Emilia leaves she is suddenly gripped with anguish and bids her not “good night” but “addio – farewell”.   Turning to her prayers she says her Ave Maria – her voice fading away into troubled sleep as she repeats:

per noi, per noi tu prega, prega
sempre e nell’ora della morte nostra,
prega per noi, prega per noi, prega.
Ave Maria. . .
nell’ora della morte.
Ave!. . .Amen!
for us, pray for us, pray
now and at the hour of our death
pray for us, pray for us, pray
Ave Maria….
at the hour of our death.
Ave! ….  Amen

While I was doing a Google search – they did a wonderful tribute to La Divina on December 2 – for an image I came across an Al Hirschfeld caricature that I had never seen before.  It is Callas as she appeared in the finale scene of La Sonnambula in Luchino Visconti’s production at La Scala in 1955.  No longer Annina, the simple village maiden of Romani’s libretto but a grand diva of the ottocento – bejeweled, grand and showing us the vocal technique at her command.   As he always did I think Hirschfeld caught the essence of the character and the singer – both as seen by Visconti and projected by Callas.

December 4 -1909: 1st Grey Cup game is played. The University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeat the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 26–6.

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And Music! Always Music! – I

That title will only mean something to CBC radio listeners who tuned into The Transcontinental on Sunday afternoons in the 80s-90s. Hosted for 22 year by Otto Lowy, a charming Czech who found a home in Canada after the war, it was a “musical excursion across Europe” stopping in various places for coffee, pastry, a bit of history and “music, always music!” And it – and he – was always a delight.

My August is going to be a bit like that – except I guess we could say seafood, wine, a bit of history and “opera, always opera”. Over the next three weeks I’ll have travelled, if not Europe, a fair bit of Italy and seen five operas.

It starts next weekend with a sort of mini-VerdiFest – in anticipation of the real thing in October in Parma. Saturday morning I’m heading up to Verona – five hours by train with a change in Padova now that there’s no direct trains – for the opening of Il Trovatore at the Arena (above). Opera in the Arena has been a tradition since the first performance of, what was to become its signature piece, Aida in 1913. This is “GRAND” opera and gave rise to the tradition of elephants, horses and – in one production – giraffes as the stars of big productions of the Italian warhorses. Though it may not have all the glamour of the big names of the old days Saturday hasn’t got such a bad line up – Russian barithunk Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky, Marianne Cornetti (okay she’s no Simonato but who these days is?) and Marcelo Alvarez (okay I could do without Alvarez but who else sings Manrico these days?). The whole conducted by Marco Armiliato – who isn’t such a bad stick waver.

And apparently directed and designed by Franco Zefferelli as indeed are all five operas at the Arena this year. I say apparently because I’m still trying to figure out how the Zeff will work his trademark bare-chested hunks, donkeys, children and, reportedly, a troupe of Spanish dancers into Verdi’s great gloom and doom revenge tragedy. It should be interesting. (That’s a scene from his production of Turandot above.)

Sunday its back to Rome on morning train and off to the Baths of Caracalla for the last performance of Rigoletto. Given the track record the past few seasons: a very good Turandot; an Aida that began with the ballet that Verdi forgot to write music for (so it was danced in silence); a Madama Butterfly where little Trouble was more audible than the tenor; a dreadful Tosca (only the second time I have left a theatre before the end of a performance in 57 years); and a disappointing Carmen I was almost willing to forgo this year’s offerings. However my friend David Nice – of I’ll Think of Something Later and so much else fame – mentioned that an up and coming soprano would be appearing here this year. So I will be heading off to the Via Appia and Caracalla’s old bath house to see Jessica Pratt as Gilda. If David says she’s someone to hear and keep an eye on – then hear and eye I will. The rest of the cast is so-so but at least conductor Donato Renzetti is a known quantity.

Then its my last two days at work – let’s not go there – and then… 10 days on the road. Our annual ferragosto in Pesaro with a detour through San Franscico di Assisi country before coming back to Rome. A bit more about that will follow shortly.

03 agosto – Sante Mara e Lidia

Va’, pensiero*

As part of the annual Belcanto Festival at the Parco della Musica there was a noon hour concert today featuring the Chorus of Ste Cecilia and Banda Musicale dell’Arma dei Carabinieri (The Band of the Carabinieri)in arrangements of operatic music.

The programme ended with Verdi’s great chorus of homesick longing: Va, pensiero. I was able to capture it in not very good sound or picture on my trusty Canon.

Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

It was a great moment in a fine concert and as with any performance of what is Italy’s unofficial national anthem the audience was moved. It was doubly moving in that the performance was dedicated to the memory of the six Italian soldiers killed this week in Afghanistan.

The performance had begun with a minute of silence and a playing of the Last Post. It made me think of the two soldiers we lost this past week; a total now of 132 have died in the “peace keeping” mission our government sent them on. Sadly that same government cannot even put one flag in our capital at half-mast when the bodies are brought home. I am deeply ashamed of our politicians to whom these men and women are merely pawns and whose deaths can be dismissed with a few mouthed platitudes.

20 settembre – Sant’Andrea Kim Taegon e i Santi martiri corean