Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera

happy anniversary, ‘Tosca,’ and an aria to celebrate!

Sondra Radvanovsky in Tosca

Sondra as Tosca in the Metropolitan Opera production

Today marks the anniversary of a beloved, and I do mean a beloved, opera–Tosca, which premiered in on January 14, 1900in Rome, Italy. One stunning aria after another. A bad guy who is so utterly evil he makes your blood run cold. A flawed but valiant heroine who lives and dies for love.

It is my favorite Puccini opera–bar none.

Two years ago this month, I saw Tosca at the Met, and it was a life-changing performance for me. (You can read my Bachtrack review here. )

While some of the “regie” directorial choices were clearly questionable, the performances were nothing short of stunning. I fell in love with Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi. German baritone Falk Struckmann gave a chilling performance as the villain Scarpia, one of the best I’ve ever seen on stage in the U.S.

But it was American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky who would seal my fate as a Tosca devotee for the rest of my life.

As it turned out, I was lucky to escape that performance with my life intact. See, during her second art aria, “Vissi d’arte,” which was absolutely breathtaking, Sondra hit that high note around 3:11 on the video below, and it took my breath away–literally. I gulped in air and began coughing.

Just my luck, that gorgeous high note at 3:11 resolves sotto voce in the next few measures. I thought the people sitting around me were going to kill me. Because the end of the song is so quiet, I couldn’t scrounge around in the my purse for a lozenge to stop the coughing. I almost died trying to hold my breath until the end of the song.

But death would have been a noble end if Sondra’s voice were the last thing I’d heard before expiring.

Thank you, Sondra Radvanovsky, for your peerless artistry, and for teaching me a lesson. Never sit through a live performance of opera without a lozenge clenched in your fist.

Here is Sondra’s stellar, gorgeous, captivating aria, for you to enjoy, too:

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Tosca premiered today and where would we be without it?

Today in 1900, Giacomo Puccini‘s Tosca premiered in Rome, Italy. And aren’t we glad that it did?

Why is Tosca so loved? It combines beauty and savagery. Both the evocative parts and the savage parts loom more powerfully juxtaposed against the other.

So it’s important to those presenting the opera not diminish the potential for beauty in it or else we don’t experience the inhumanity of it to the depth that operagoers are expecting and deserve.

I suppose that was chiefly my issue with the Metropolitan Opera’s production in 2011, which featured Sondra RadvanovskyMarcelo Álvarez, and Falk Struckmann, which I reviewed for Bachtrack. I won’t launch into another review here, but I will say in retrospect that restraint exercised in stage direction as in writing can be more powerful than succumbing to one’s impulses to add, expand, and heighten, the chief example for me being the director (Bondy) choosing to throw three scantily clad (we’re talking pasties, here) prostitutes into Scarpia’s chambers.

I have no objection to beautiful bodies or their use on stage, but if Tosca is Scarpia’s source of weakness and Scarpia can get sex he wants anytime he wants it however he wants it, his need to have Tosca is sorely and sadly diminished–the power and the aftereffects of that scene are diminished rather than enhanced by adding more sex.

Does that mean I wouldn’t see the Met production again? I’d see it in a heartbeat. Falk Struckmann’s performance as Baron Scarpia was my favorite of the season, despite the over-the-top things Bondy incorporated into his part. Seeing both Radvanovsky and Álvarez in one show added a notch to my opera belt. Of course, I probably wouldn’t have a chance to see this cast again, so I will recreate portions of my experience for you here.

Here then are my two favorite moments from The Met’s Tosca, breathtaking moments, literally. In “Vissi d’arte,” right around 3:12 in the video below, I gasped, so completely engrossed in Radvanovsky’s climatic note. Then of course the aria becomes tender and quiet. Unfortunately, since I’d lost my breath, I began coughing at that point. I’m sure people sitting around me wanted to choke me. Then I began digging in my purse for a cough drop to silence my coughing. Rattle, rattle, rattle. I’m very sorry to those around me for disturbing their enjoyment of this aria:

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And the other favorite moment I can share with you from the Met production is “E lucevan le stelle.”

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Viva, Tosca! You will live forever in our hearts.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Uncategorized, Video

a tale Godunov to share–the Chevy Chase of basses?

Tonight, I went to opening night at Berks Jazz Fest. At the gala before the show, I was talking with a veteran local musician, now a senior citizen, who had seen Boris Godunov at the Met decades ago.

“It starred a Finnish bass,” he explained but not remembering the name. “This singer was unusual because during the death scene, he didn’t just slump over in his chair like most Godunov’s. I remember he actually tumbled out of it.”

The death scene is dramatic and draining and to combine the equivalent of a pratfall in the scene sounded like a killer punishment to the body–over time.

I got home and within minutes on the computer, I googled Finnish bass and Godunov and found (drumroll, please) this video of Martti Talvela just about killing himself in this scene–definitely punishing his body. When he dies, he hits the floor,straight on, like dead weight. And yet he performed the role of Boris Godunov 39 times between 1974 and 1987, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which is why I referred to him as the Chevy Chase of opera. Not because Talvela was funny, but because he inflicted so much punishment on his body while on stage. Sadly, he died young, at only age 54 in 1989.

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retro Met? (don’t quote me)

Plácido Domingo


The one thing I hate at the Met is the note in the program that the public is requested not to interrupt the music with applause. That should be destroyed. What we need is to be encouraged to applaud.
–Plácido Domingo 

Fast forward to 2011: Rules about applauding at classical music concerts appear to be relaxing. Even in the bastions of classical music like the Metropolitan Opera, you are likely to hear premature clapping.

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Moses und Aron — an anniversary glance

 Today marks the anniversary of the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg‘s Moses und Aron  in Hamburg, Germany, in 1954.   

John Tomlinson as Moses, Metropolitan Opera, 2003

Moses und Aron is an important operatic work if not a popular one. This, despite the fact that the libretto, also written by Schoenberg, mirrors the exile of Jews from Egypt in search of the Promised Land as told in the Book of Exodus; few tales other than mythological favorites are better known and more enduring than Biblical sagas from the Old Testament.  It’s hardly the subject matter that makes this a less-accessible opera. Even more interesting is that once Moses und Aron began to be performed, the director’s vision almost invariably required Moses to be in modern dress while incorporating other modern elements or flourishes that chafed against the expectations of audiences familiar with a tale thousands of years old.   

The first two acts of Moses und Aron were completed between 1930-32. It was never performed in its entirety in the composer’s lifetime because he hadn’t finished it before he died. However, a selection, “Dance of the Golden Calf,” was performed in public 11 days before he passed away.   

This piece interests me holistically as a commentary on the time period in which it was written, the composition of  a man of Jewish descent, who lived in Central Europe during the rise of Aryan movement and later the Third Reich. Though Schoenberg converted to the Lutheran religion in 1898, he was unable or unwilling to renounce his Jewish heritage, returning to the Jewish religion in 1933, resulting from the sanctioned anti-Semitism overtaking Europe.   

After his family’s own exile from their vacation residence in 1921–now open only to Aryans–Schoenberg grappled with what it meant to be of Jewish heritage in Europe during the 1920s:   

For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed not perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.   

Moses und Aron, Act 1, Metropolitan Opera

Musically, the work is based on a single tone row, itself constructed from cells, which lends the piece what others perceive as atonal qualities. Prior to a reader of this blog suggesting I take a closer look at Schoenberg’s seminal work, I might not have given it a glance.  I don’t profess to understand or appreciate modern opera.   

But this work has moved me to a different place in my (provincial) thinking. If one is writing about the subjugation and exile of the Jewish people in ancient times or in Europe in the early- to mid-20th century, what musical language could be more appropriate? How else would an intelligent composer living during Schoenberg’s time express the mounting horrors of his life and time?  His musical vocabulary grates against conventional expectations for what opera should sound like, and, as a result, is sheer genius and unforgettable.  

Here are two excerpts of Moses und Aron from the Vienna State Opera’s 2006 production conducted by Daniele Gatti and directed by Reto Nickler. A bit of trivia, apparently Schoenberg had severe triskaidekaphobia and took one of the A’s out of Aaron’s name as it is more commonly spelled in naming his work.  

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