Happy Listening: In Memory of a “Sirius” Opera Fan

(Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Robert W. White.)

The passionate opera community on Facebook is a real treasure. Two of the online places that I’ve been frequenting include the Met Opera Live in HD Fans group, and its smaller sister-group, Sirius Opera Fans. The former is focused primarily on discussing the live cinema screenings from the Metropolitan Opera.  (Special note: Verdi’s Nabucco–conducted by James Levine and starring Placido Domingo–is being broadcast live in HD from the Met in only about 9 hours from the time of this post, on Jan. 7th, 12:55pm ET/9:55am PST, to a number of local cinemas!) Yet, outside of the immediate Met broadcast focus, there are many shares and conversations surrounding other opera events, performances, birthdays, and historical gems worldwide. Many members have a wealth of knowledge and insight into opera–they’re the best “enablers” of opera addiction out there! Sirius Opera Fans is primarily for those who listen to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, whether that be the Met channel on Sirius XM Radio, or another station. Some are the live broadcasts from the Met, and many are archived treasures. Either way, it’s a chance for opera lovers to listen to a broadcast together, and share the joy through a running commentary.

One weekly post that became something of a “fixture” in the Sirius group—many of us began to rely on it—was that shared by Mr. Robert W. White. Thus, we were all in shock and mourning to learn, on Dec 17, of Mr. White’s passing the previous day. (The only clue might have been the slight gap in his usual postings, his final having been December 3rd.) I did not know him personally, so I’m only sharing thoughts as one relative newbie among many members who benefited from his contributions in this group and elsewhere. But for a little background, his obituary can be found at this link, thanks to one of the group members. It sounds like he was as giving in his personal life as he was with his opera friends.

Mr. White joined the Sirius group in November of 2015, and began sharing his weekly posts there in February of 2016. Besides giving us the schedule of operas to be broadcast on Sirius the following week, Mr. White would include his own comments and recommendations on these individual broadcasts that he had written down over the years as an avid opera-goer and listener.

Mr. White never minced words, and his posts were peppered with comments like the following: “Rysanek bids farewell to Verdi at the Met with a whimper” (on the Verdi Otello broadcast of 2/15/1964); or “Sereni’s limitations as Luna are only in comparison to Warren or Bastianini, not today’s rather pitiful crop of Verdi baritones” (on the Il Trovatore broadcast of 3/31/71). Certain motifs are evident in his comments, over time. For example, he didn’t consider himself much of a “Rossinian,” except perhaps for a love of Il Barbiere. We read above what he generally thought of baritones in the last decade and a half. He perhaps had a tendency to favor Marton, or Siepi—I say “amen!” to the latter!–but he would never hesitate to say which recordings represented anyone in stronger or weaker voice. (I still have not discovered a mention of Cesare Siepi as being “out of form,” however. My own theory is that “the lion Siepi”–Mr. White’s title for him–was never out of form!) Too, Mr. White gave fascinating historical tidbits to add to the appreciation, whether it was that a certain production had been postponed due to the JFK assassination, or whether it was a conductor’s last recorded performance of a composer’s music.

Whether one agreed with him or not on his views—and he’d be the first to comment that they were only his preferences—he was always worth paying attention to, as his perspective came from many years of dedicated listening, and he had a vast well of knowledge which he drew on. His praise was worth the earning; if he said of a production that it was “highly recommended”–such as the 3/6/1954 Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Corena, Merrill, Peters, Valletti, and Siepi which I have playing in the background as I write this—one figured it was the real deal.

So, yes, Mr. White is much missed; yet, his presence is still there in the group, and will always be treasured.

One of our Sirius group members has started posting weekly schedules as he is able, in the tradition of Mr. White, and some of us are working on compiling his posts (currently in the Sirius group in draft form) into a database organized alphabetically by composer and opera, with comment highlights and links from each opera entry, to the applicable document that Mr. White shared with us. Likely, there are many other postings of his in his other groups prior to February of 2016. To begin to organize the many wonderful comments he shared with us has been a labor of love, and, most certainly, a work-in-progress. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned a great deal, and have taken many personal notes.

Of course, one can still see Mr. White’s original postings in the Sirius Opera Fans group, or get the link to the database-in-progress there. And of course, feel free to come on over and join–and of course the larger Met Live in HD Fans, which is the main group–if you have an interest in experiencing opera on the radio, with friends!

And to our always-remembered friend Mr. White, thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience with us. We’ll keep listening and posting, in your memory.

Happy New Year everyone. And, as Mr. White would typically end his weekly notes with, “Happy listening”!

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Month #1 of (mostly) Met-on-Demand

*Note #1: if we’re friends on Facebook, you’ve probably seen these notes already…

**Note #2: These are very informal–and too lengthy–impressions from an opera newbie!

***Note #3: “Cliff’s Notes” Version of this post: Please see the 2011 Don Giovanni and the 2007 Eugene Onegin, if I absolutely must narrow it down. Also, fell head-over-heels with three bass singers: René Pape, Štefan Kocán, and John Relyea! (Already loved bass Ildar, of course!)

~~~

Oscar Wilde said that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. Well, apparently I’ve been following this advice with the opera addiction. The subtitle to this post might be: “Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Give into My Met-On-Demand Addiction”. (It might also be subtitled: “The Month of the Bass and Baritone”.)

What enabled me to watch an unusual amount of recorded opera this month is that I happened to be, at several points, involved in an aspect of my sewing work which is too rare: that which allows for multitasking! (Mostly the hand-sewing part, which alone took a good 18 hours lately. YES!) So…here goes! Not necessarily in the order in which I watched them.

don-giovanni-collageDon Giovanni (Met, 2011)

Thanks to my friend and enabler, Viv, and partly inspired by seeing the recent HD cinema showing of the current Don Giovanni with Simon Keenlyside–which I had mixed feelings about overall, but enjoyed, particularly Simon himself–I finally watched the 2011 Don Giovanni (same set/production) with Mariusz Kwiecien, Luca Pisaroni, Štefan Kocán, Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, and Ramón Vargas.

Oh my. I have fallen in love with this opera all over again, and simply cannot get it out of my head. Mariusz is a most charming, seductive Don, and what shall we say of Luca? I see why he is a legend in this role of Leporello ~ vocally, it just doesn’t get better, but added to that is an impeccable comic timing and complete naturalness in the role. I particularly loved the way Mariusz and Luca play off one another ~ I have never seen a production which captures so well the relationship between Giovanni and Leporello, love-hate though it is, as Luca has expressed his interpretation in a recent interview…however much they may betray one another, is not unlike a dysfunctional married couple, each knowing the other so well. There are even moments of tenderness. When the Don makes his final act of defiance to agree to come to dinner with the Commendatore, there is a moment of farewell between them, which I have not quite seen anything like. (And indeed, Luca’s Leporello looks somewhat lost without his villainous master in the final minutes…)

This production captured the comedy of this incredible opera, and both the direction and the conducting–Fabio Luisi–kept a sprightly pace. In fact, the whole production felt sprightly and energetic! The Anna–dang, she’s great!–Elvira, Masetto, and Zerlina were also wonderful. I went from moments of irrepressible laughter–such as when Leporello imitates the Don in seducing Donna Elvira–to tears, as in Mariusz’s “deh vieni alla finestra”…yes, that charming Don manages to seduce his audience every bit as much as he did the 1800+ ladies.

Then, there was the new-to-me discovery of the glorious bass Štefan Kocán, the Commendatore! Wow! (Thank you, Gabriela, you were so right!!) It was some time before I could move on to the rest of the opera after the Commendatore’s death in the opening, so beautiful was his final minute of singing with Giovanni and Leporello that I had to rewatch it again and again. (By this point I must have watched that moment probably two dozen times altogether.) And of course, at the end, he returns in a most gloriously haunting finale…

All this, in a production that was done only 2 weeks after Mariusz had back surgery! Amazing. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. If you haven’t already fallen in love with this opera, this production will probably do the trick. 🙂

il-trovatore-2015-collageIl Trovatore (Met, 2015)

Be prepared for tears on this one. Not so much due to the operatic tragedy of the story, as the reception by the Met audience and orchestra of beloved Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who returned to his role of the Count di Luna after the announcement of his brain tumor and the months of chemotherapy that followed. (Just wait until the final bows and curtain calls…have tissues handy!)

This was only the second time I’ve seen a recorded production of this opera. I marvel at the vocal gymnastics that are required of our leads, and Anna Netrebko had me breathless as Leonora, particularly in her Act IV arias…dang! Dmitri, of course, shone as the Count di Luna, with such a powerful stage presence alongside the extraordinary bass Štefan Kocán as Ferrando…amazing! Dolora Zajick was a wonderful Azucena, and I very much liked Younghoon Lee as Manrico ~ very dynamic.

Loved the Goyaesque set and the period costume. Overall, a beautiful production.

Now looking forward to seeing the earlier Trovatore, from 2011…!

magic-flute-branagh-rene-collage**Movie Break!** (Not from the Met:) Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute, 2006

So…now for The Magic René–oops, I mean, The Magic Flute.

Okay, I actually watched this one before most of the others, and it’s not Met, but I thought it worth a mention, as I’ve become so hopelessly enamoured of René Pape. I’ve been remotely following him for months, but was utterly smitten after his performances in both Parsifal (Met, 2013) and his King Marke in the Met Live in HD Tristan und Isolde in early October.

I have never seen a production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte…nor Der ZauberRené for that matter ~ so, please take this with a grain of salt, but I thoroughly enjoyed Branagh’s quirky, random humor transposed into a fantastical World War I setting with an anti-war focus. Not to mention the Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque English libretto by Stephen Fry. Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), and glorious, mesmerizing magician-bass René Pape (Sarastro) led the cast. (Yes, as much as I adore Branagh, I daresay you know who was the magician that drew me to THIS movie…) The CGI effects are pretty cheesy in spots, but it’s somehow in keeping with the magical, goofy oddity of the whole.

nozze-collageLe Nozze di Figaro, Met, 2014

Another lighthearted moment was the Met’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the 2014-15 season (available on Met on Demand), with Ildar Abdrazakov, one of my favorite bass voices! Again, as familiar as much of the music is to me, I’d never seen a production and didn’t know how delightful and hilarious it is! I loved it. Ildar, as the witty servant Figaro, couldn’t be more adorable if he tried, and Peter Mattei (wow, another beautiful voice, and a new favorite!) as the womanizing Count Almaviva was just fantastic. The whole cast was delightful, and had me laughing up in the workshop…

Il Trovatore, Met, 2011

After the wonderful 2015 Il Trovatore that I watched the previous week, I watched the same wonderful David McVicar production–with some of the same cast, notably Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Štefan Kocán, and Dolora Zajick–in their earlier 2011 production, and was intrigued and delighted with the similarities and differences. It’s really hard to choose overall.

In both, Dima shines as the Count di Luna, Štefan Kocán is an irresistably ruthless bass Ferrando, and Dolora Zajick strikes me as a master of the gypsy Azucena. But here we have a different Leonora and Manrico, sung in 2011 by Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcelo Alvarez. While I thoroughly appreciated the Netrebko/Lee combination of 2015, and vocally it is really hard to choose–and I am naturally a little more drawn to Netrebko’s vocal quality–yet I must say Sondra really won me over in this role, and particularly the chemistry between her and Marcelo, who was also a very endearing and strong Manrico. The character interpretation of Leonora was less melancholy than Netrebko’s, and one really gets behind Sondra, whose expressive face and adoring love for Manrico are so evident. I thoroughly enjoyed both, but I must give the edge to the Radvanovsky/Alvarez combination for our two leads. (That being said, if one has time for only one of the two productions, I might choose the 2015 if for nothing else than the beautiful reception for Dima, and the endearing and heart-wrenching applause and roses for him at the end…)

eugene-onegin-2007-collageEugene Onegin, Met, 2007 and 2013

A real highlight of this past opera week for me was the new-to-me discovery of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, another which I did a double header on, seeing both the 2007 production with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Renée Fleming, and Ramón Vargas, as well as the more recent production with Mariusz Kwiecien, Anna Netrebko, and Piotr Beczala. I had not known this story previously ~ about inaccessible love, haughty rejection, and the pride that destroys friendships and romantic love ~ based on the verse-novel by Alexander Pushkin. Okay, so I do have a tendency to love anything 19th century anyway, but I was captivated by these characters, and utterly loved it. It is *quintessentially* 19th century in its themes, with an ending I wouldn’t have expected in an opera. I won’t say more, but I’d like to write a more fleshed-out post on this opera alone at some point, rather than just pointing out a few highlights of these productions.

Both Anna and Renée are absolutely luminous in the role of the shy but stronger-than-she-appears Tatiana, and I really cannot choose between the two whose interpretation I prefer. (But I was more invested in Renée’s struggles, perhaps because it was my first Eugene, and I loved the whole production so much altogether.) Piotr and Ramón were both wonderful as the honorable, lovable, but almost irrationally-jealous Lenski…it was my first time seeing Piotr in anything and I was so impressed! For Eugene, I would be hard pressed to give a preference as to their vocal beauty in the role; but in terms of interpretation and sheer force of presence, undoubtedly, Dmitri has the commanding, striking haughtiness that instantly catches one off guard, as this character does Tatiana. He is positively statuesque. I mean, this Eugene really out-Darcys Mr. Darcy, and is more aimless and cynical than a Eugene Wrayburn. Unquestionably, I would choose Dima for the role, if I were forced to choose. (But I would very highly recommend both.)

Visually, both productions are luscious, and the costumes stunning. The 2013 is quite glorious to look at. My own preference, though, is decidedly in favor of the earlier 2007 production with Dima and Renée: it is utterly magical in its stark simplicity. A very minimalist set with a slightly “boxed-in” look (thematically in keeping with the bounded-in-a-nutshell situation of the characters…), but with the most stunning colors–I’d like to create a photo collage of the different scenes–and falling leaves, as though reflective of the beauty of romantic love even in it’s autumn…when it is rejected and inaccessible.

Both are so beautifully and feelingly conducted by Valery Gergiev, and there is a wonderful behind-the-scenes mini-documentary on this after the 2007 stream.

I will be rewatching both versions again and again no doubt, but particularly the 2007 version, which will probably go down as one of my favorite opera productions.💙💔

Of course, Eugene Onegin will be live in the cinemas from the Met in April of 2017, again with Dmitri, in combination with Anna Netrebko and Štefan Kocán…I absolutely cannot wait!

Afterward

Now that I’ve practically written a novel of notes, I thought I’d also mention that these are only a few of the opera beauties I’ve heard and seen this month, which includes a live-stream with Mariusz of Donizetti’s La Favorite, and the Met Live in HD Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme and René.

A few radio highlights include a really marvelous radio transmission of a Don Carlo with René (Philip II), Mariusz (Rodrigo), and Michael Fabiano (Carlo) from the San Francisco Opera of June 2016; also, another Don Carlo audio with René and Dima from the Met-on-Demand (audio only)…both stunningly beautiful. Also, it’s been great fun to experience, via radio, this year’s Met production of Guillaume Tell, with Gerald Finley (Tell), Marina Rebeka (Mathilde) and another magician-bass, John Relyea (the evil Gessler! A new bass love!!). Then, this past week, another live radio broadcast of the Met’s Don Giovanni, this time with Ildar Abdrakazov in the lead! A most marvelous Don…perfect! And this has not remotely covered it all.

It’s a huge joy to be part of the Sirius Opera Fans group and Met Opera Live in HD Fans group (both on Facebook), which have been such inspiring places to discuss opera love, to learn, and to share insight. (And to find more opera-enablers!! 😉 )