Dawn Upshaw – The World So Wide

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A few weeks ago I reviewed Renée Fleming’s excellent disc of American opera arias and today I turn to Dawn Upshaw’s disc, which takes its title, The World So Wide, from the first item in the recital, Laurie’s Song from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. It makes a lovely opener and Upshaw is perfectly cast as the young girl who yearns to escape and see the world.

At about 45 minutes, the disc is quite short measure, however, and not everything is as good as the first track. The piece from Tanía León’s Scourge of Hyacinths is tediously declamatory and afforded me the least enjoyment on the disc. I’d also suggest that Upshaw’s is not the right voice for Barber’s Cleopatra, a role that was written for the much more opulent voice of Leontyne Price. Upshaw’s lighter, brighter sounds do not conjure up the woman of whom Enobarbus says,

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies, for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

I enjoyed the excerpt from John Adams Nixon in China rather more than the Gramophone reviewer, who found it “tediously protracted”, and I suppose you either like Adams’s style or you don’t. Whatever your feelings, Upshaw delivers Pat Nixon’s This is prophetic brilliantly. She is also superb in the more Broadway influenced What a movie from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, but I thought her singing of Lonely house (an aria sung by the male character of Sam Kaplan in Street Scene) just a little too overtly operatic. Teresa Stratas manages it better on her second disc of Weill songs and arias.

After the Copland and Benstein, the most successful item on the disc is Willow Song from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, which responds well to her charming, uncomplicated manner. So too, one would think, does the final item (and the only item she shares with Fleming on her disc), Ain’t it a pretty night from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, but here I have to admit I prefer the rather more sensuos tones of Fleming, who suggests a far more highly charged eroticism behind the apparent simplicity of the music.

A mixed bag, then, and not so successful as her disc of Broadway songs entitled I Wish It So, but worth a listen for the unusual repertoire and for some excellent performances.

Renée Fleming – I Want Magic

 

 

 

Renée Fleming was at her peak when this recital was recorded and this is, without doubt, one of her most successful records. The programme is a varied one too, with familiar items like Gershwin’s Summertime and Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay rubbing shoulders with items from more rarely performed works like Hermann’s Wuthering Heights and Floyd’s Susannah. The inclusion of Anne’s No word from Tom from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress rather stretches the subtitle American Opera Arias a bit, but is possibly justified as Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky were all resident in the US at the time of its composition.

The disc opens with a short extract from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, which was written in 1943 but never staged in Herrmann’s lifetime. In fact it was only premiered in 1982 by Portland Opera, but with the ending changed to one Julius Rudel had proposed several years earlier. It wasn’t performed in full until 2011, by Minnesota Opera. I have dreamt, lusciously sung here by Fleming, woud suggest the opera might be worth further investigation.

The excerpts from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Menotti’s The Medium are both lovely in every way, but the Gershwin items from Porgy and Bess suffer from a lack of spontaneity. Fleming introduces all sorts of jazzy slides and glottal attacks which simply sound affected. Leontyne Price sings this music much more simply and allows it to blossom on its own.

The considerable difficulties of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are tossed off with ease and here she captures the irony in the piece marvellously. It’s a piece that, unsurprisingly, many opera singers have added to their repertoire but few of them challenge the original interpreter, Broadway star Barbara Cook, who created the role and whose diction is a good deal more clear. To be honest, the only “operatic” version I’ve heard that does is Dawn Upshaw’s, but Fleming’s is certainly amongst the best.

Next we have two pieces from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which brought back happy memories of seeing Fleming in the role at the Met shortly after she recorded these exceprts. She is at her considerable best here, flooding the gratefully lyrical lines with gorgeous tone, but also capturing the character’s longing for adventure in the first, her loneliness in the second.

Finally we have a reminiscence of her Anne Trulove, which she sang at the Aspen Music Festival in 1987 and a taster of her Blanche Dubois in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she premiered soon after making this recording. She has a richer voice than most Annes, but negotiates its complexities with ease and her Blanche is simply hors concours. The aria I want magic was an obvious high spot when she sang the role in London with the LSO, but I rather wish they had also included the final aria, I can smell the sea air, which had a huge effect on me each time I heard it whilst waiting in the wings to make my entrance as the doctor. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

Sandwiched between the Stravinsky and the Previn we have Vanessa’s passionate Act I aria from Barber’s opera, which left me wondering why nobody had thought to revive the opera with Fleming in the title role. It would have suited her perfectly.

If I have any reservations, aside from those I mentioned about the Gershwin pieces, I’d have to say that her diction could be clearer. Other than that, this is an absorbing and rewarding programme stunningly sung and beautifully executed. Don’t hesitate.

Dawn Upshaw – I Wish It So

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This collection of Broadway songs by Bernstein, Blitztein, Sondheim and Weil is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

Aside from Bernstein’s I feel pretty and, to a lesser extent, his Glitter and be gay none of the items here could be considered well-known and the choice of this particular quartet of composers, all of whom are connected in some way, is felicitous. Furthermore Upshaw’s clear, bright soprano and natural, unforced diction make her the ideal interpreter.

It is rare indeed for classical singers to embrace the idiom of Broadway without sounding self-conscious, but if you didn’t know better, (and I mean this in a positive way) you would never know that Upshaw was also an operatic artist of the first order. Many opera singers have tackled Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay, but none have ever, to my mind, challenged the original performer Barbara Cook, who not only manages to get round the notes, but really puts across the humour in the lyrics; none, that is, except Dawn Upshaw, who actually manages the coloratura with greater ease and beauty, but also points the lyrics with such ironic brilliance.

It is just one of the highlights in an album of sheer delights and I’d be hard pressed to find a favourite but there were many wonderful discoveries, among them Sondheim’s The girls of summer (1956) and the opening track, sung to just piano, Blitztein’s I wish it so from Juno (1959).

Only Glitter and be gay uses the original orchestration, but all the other arrangements are well done and the orchestra play excellently under Eric Stern, who himself was responsible for some of the orchestrations and provides the solo piano accompaniment on I wish it so.

I can’t recommend this disc too highly.

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The Callas Bernstein La Sonnambula – La Scala 1955

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Having got Andrea Chenier out of the way, and after singing four performances of Medea in Rome, Callas started work on what might have seemed a surprising role for her, that of the sweet ingénue Amina in La Sonnambula; surprising, that is, until one recalls that Bellini wrote the opera for the very same singer who created Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Bellini’s favourite Amina was evidently Maria Malibran, who was also a great Norma, but where Norma had become the property of large voiced, dramatic sopranos, who often couldn’t cope with the florid demands of the role, Amina had gone to light voiced, bird-like soubrettes, who rarely brought any depth to the character. Like Donizetti’s Lucia di LammemoorLa Sonnambula had become a vehicle for vocal display, nothing else, though this is clearly not what Bellini or his librettist, Romani, had in mind.

According to Romani,

The role of Amina, even though at first glance it may seem very easy to interpret, is perhaps more difficult than many others which are deemed more important. It requires an actress who is playful, ingenuous and innocent, and at the same time passionate, sensitive and amorous; who has a cry for joy and also a cry for sorrow, an accent for reproach and another for entreaty… This was the role created by Bellini’s intellect.

Used to the doll-like pipings of so many light voiced sopranos, Callas’s performances no doubt came as a revelation. She performed the role 22 times, always in the same La Scala Visconti production, which was revived in 1957, the same year she made her commercial recording of the opera, and travelled to Cologne and Edinburgh that same year too, though, by that time, Votto had replaced Bernstein as conductor and Nicola Monti had taken over from Cesare Valletti. Live recordings exist of both Cologne and Edinburgh, and my personal favourite has always been Cologne, where Callas, with slightly more limited resources, sings a more poetic, a gentler Amina; a portrait in pastels rather than oil.

However, I would never want to be without this thrilling La Scala recording, and to appreciate it fully, maybe a little background on the production would be helpful. Visconti, with his designer Piero Tosi, had sought to create a picture-book, dreamlike depiction of a nineteenth century village that never existed, the villagers dressed like ladies and gentlemen, the women in shades of pink, pearl and grey, and the men in black and white. Visconti’s vision of Amina was no village girl, but the evocation of a bejewelled nineteenth-century prima donna performing the role. She was costumed to look like the nineteenth century ballerina Maria Taglioni, and PIero Tosi recalls that when she made her entrance in the first sleepwalking scene, the impression she created was of “a sylphide tripping on the moonlight.”

Though one can see what Visconti was driving at, Callas’s genius ensures that at no point does she seem to be performing the role, so completely does she inhabit the character of sweet, trusting Amina, but it does explain some of the intricate variations Bernstein created for her, flung out to the Milanese audience with insouciant ease. Later performances under Votto would find some of the vocal display trimmed away. Bernstein also opens up some of the cuts reinstated by Votto, possibly because he had a tenor, Cesare Valletti, more capable of singing the music. Valletti is, in every way, far superior to Nicola Monti, who appears on the commercial recording and in the Cologne and Edinburgh performances.

Visconti undoubtedly built the production around Callas dramatically, just as Bernstein does musically. A trifle impatient with the choruses, he is wonderfully expansive in Amina’s solos, giving Callas time to shape and mould the phrases, their musical rapport absolutely as one.

From her first entry, Callas’s voice has a pearly softness, Come per me sereno exuding an inner happiness and fullness of heart that is at the core of her conception of Amina. For the cabaletta, Bernstein has given her some supremely ambitious embellishments, which she executes with staggering ease and agility, and the audience unsurprisingly give her a rousing reception.

But, as always with Callas, it is not just in the big set pieces that she excels. She is as inclined to make her mark in a word or line of recitative. I am thinking here of the way she imbues the words Il cor soltanto, when the Notary asks what she is bringing as dowry, with such love and trust and warmth. One should also note that Valletti is a worthy and distinguished partner, and, though he eschews some of the high notes written for the great Rubini, he proves himself to have been the perfect choice for the role. He makes a wonderfully sympathetic partner for Callas in the duet that ends the scene. A simple soul, his duping by the scheming Lisa becomes entirely believable,

Note also how Callas adopts a more veiled tone for the scenes in which she is sleepwalking, her confusion and terror when she wakes in the count’s bedroom palpably real. When Elvino rejects her, the pain she evinces is almost unbearable, her moulding of the phrases which launch the great ensemble, D’un pensiero e d’un accento couched in a legato which is meltingly poignant. In the allegro that follows, she lets out her full voice for the first time, as Amina’s desperation mounts, and caps the act with a ringing Eb in alt.

She has little to do in the opening scene of the last act, which belongs principally to the tenor, but she does much with what little she has, movingly concerned for Elvino even in the depths of her own pain.

It is in the final scene, though, where her gifts as a singing actress of the highest order are paramount. The range of colours she employs in the recitative is wide indeed, but she never destroys the dreamlike mood she has created. Certain phrases stand out in relief, like the pathos in her cry of Ah! Il mio anello and the heart-break in Questa d’un cor che more e l’ultima preghiera. The aria that follows, Ah non credea is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, couched in an almost seamless legato, its phrases spun out to prodigious lengths. The audience sit in rapt silence, totally drawn in and when, at its close, Elvino sings Ah piu non reggo, we too feel we can bear no more. This section worked well for Callas even as late as 1964 when she sang it on French TV. Elegantly coiffed and gowned though she is, and scarcely moving a muscle, she simply becomes the broken-hearted village girl Amina. This is the art that conceals art.

When Amina is awoken and the mood is broken, Callas breaks into the sparkling cabaletta, Ah non giunge with glittering abandon, executing the coloratura flourishes with coruscating brilliance. Some might feel that her singing here is too forceful, but again it is good to be reminded of what happened in Visconti’s production. He brought up all the lights, including La Scala’s huge central chandelier to full brilliance, and had Callas come down to the footlights, singing directly out into the audience, no longer Amina, but the great prima donna acknowledging her public. If there were still any doubt about the matter, this is the night that Callas was unequivocally crowned Regina della Scala.

As for the sound, I only have the old EMI version to hand for comparison, and can state that this Warner transfer is a good deal better than that. There are occasional moments of distortion and overload, but in general it is very listenable. Having listened to it again for the first time in several years, I now find it hard to chose between this one and the Cologne performance of 1957. How lucky we are to have both.

Callas sings Medea at La Scala 1953

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It is actually somewhat down to happenstance that La Scala staged Medea in December 1953. Callas was originally to have appeared in a new production of Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore but the success of her appearances in Cherubuni’s Medea in Florence at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino made La Scala change their plans and stage the Cherubini opera instead. Nor was Bernstein slated to conduct, but Victor De Sabata, La Scala’s original choice fell ill just before rehearsals started, leaving them without a conductor. As luck would have it Bernstein was winding up a series of concerts in Italy, one of which Callas happened to hear, and she suggested they approach him, and fortunately he was free.

Unlike many of the operas Callas sang, there was absolutely no performing tradition with Cherubini’s Medea, and consequently each conductor she performed it with prepared their own, slightly differing, version, their interpretations of the score often markedly different. Where Vittorio Gui, who conducted the opera in Florence, brought out its classical dimension, Bernstein seems to see it as reaching forward into the Romantic era, his conducting more in line with his fiery interpretations of Beethoven. After the turbulent overture, the opera opens in gentle, pastoral vein, and, though I might wish that Gui (and later Serafin in the studio recording) would get a move on a bit, Bernstein seems too much in a hurry to get to the crux of the drama and his speeds are often so fast the orchestra and chorus can hardly keep up with him. However after the entrance of Medea, he really gets into his stride, and conducts a blisteringly intense realisation of the score, to match Callas’s blisteringly intense singing.

Io, Medea, are her very first words,, and, though the notes look simple enough on the page, the tone she uses carries a threat that completely dispels the pastoral calm of the previous scene.  Ah, quale voce! indeed, as Giasone comments. The crowd disperse in terror, but, left alone with Giasone, Callas is quick to make us realise that it is love alone that brings her to Corinth, particularly when she sings the words, Ricordi il giorno tu, la prima volta quando mai veduta? The aria Dei tuoi figli is sung in melting tones and, though in later years she would find even more insinuating colours, she manages its wide leaps and high tessitura with staggering ease. Unfortunately Bernstein cuts its final Crudel! and robs the aria of its true climax.

That said, his conducting of the ensuing duet is superb, especially when he suddenly slows down what had been a propulsive tempo at the lines O fatal velo d’or, with a reduction in volume from both singers and orchestra, which creates a chilling effect not duplicated in any of her other performances. Elsewhere in the duet, there is a touch too much vehemence from Callas here, and I feel she overplays her hand, as she does later in the duet with Creon, which lacks the play of light and shade found in her performance in Dallas in 1958.

Indeed throughout this performance, we get more of the sorceress and less of the woman, which makes her traversal of the role in Dallas so much more fascinating. Nevertheless, it is very exciting and, by the time of the closing scene, we are confronted with a voice of blackest evil. Bernstein also cuts a large section of the lament for her children, possibly to remove some of Medea’s human dimension in her final inexorable revenge. This solution has a justification of sorts, I suppose, but I prefer the dichotomy of woman and sorceress we get in Dallas, and, to a lesser extent, in Florence, where Gui lets us hear the closing scene in its entirety.

On the plus side, Callas’s voice is in fabulous form at La Scala and she rides the music’s climaxes with ease. The effect is undeniably thrilling, and you can hear from the audience’s reception that they gained a spectacular success.

Barbieri, is, as she was in Florence, an excellent Neris, this time singing her aria with bassoon obligato, rather than the cello substituted in Florence. I prefer Guichandut in Florence to Penno at La Scala, but nether challenges Vickers, who sings the role of Giasone in Dallas in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, and at La Scala in 1961. Giuseppe Modesti, who also sings the role of Creon on her studio recording of the opera, is fine as Creon, though I slightly prefer Zaccaria in Dallas and Maria Luisa Nache is a sweet-toned Glauce. However it is surely for the contributions of Callas and Bernstein that we are most likely to turn to this recording , and here they are absolutely as one in their conception of the piece.

As far as the actual recording goes, again the source material is not great, so we cannot expect too much. This Warner issue is a lot clearer and cleaner than EMI’s usually shoddy presentation, but I couldn’t hear that much difference between this and the one issued by Ars Vocalis. Eventually I decided on a slight preference for the Warner, but there is not much in it, and either would be a good choice.