Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Belated Valentine

Because my Miele vacuum was spitting instead of sucking, I took it to the A-1 vacuum shop in my fair city. It was a bright morning with deep, fresh snow and I entered a dingy business not much changed since the 1960's. Business was good. There were scattered forests of upright vacuums here and there.

I was second at the repair desk, behind two old ladies. A tiny, vibrant woman in her 70's wearing a light blue coat stood at the counter talking to the vacuum repairman, a man of Mexican extraction, while her friend, who was accompanying her on this important errand, sat in a chair and offered support.

The tiny woman placed her 1930's Electrolux canister vacuum on the repairman's examining table. She asked his opinion about what it needed. She had always loved this vacuum and wanted to keep it. She stated its exact age: it was seventy-three years old. It was metal gray and the finish was worn. The hose--dating to before the age of plastics--was dense woven fiber, discolored and frayed. She opened one end and exposed an ancient removable filter. "I would really like to save this machine. How much would it cost to spruce it up?"

"That depends mostly on if the motor's in good shape. If the motor's in good shape a tune-up would be eighty dollars. If the motor's bad, it's not worth replacing."

Then he plugged in the vacuum and listened to the loud, high-pitched whining.

"No, you don't want to repair this, the motor's shot."

"It sounds like it always has."

"No, it's no good."

"I really can't hear any difference from what it has always sounded like."

"Well, the bearings are shot. It's not supposed to sound like that."

But like a vet explaining that the family pet had to be put down, the man continued to console her. He went to the back room to find a similar antique to show her how the motor was supposed to sound.

I thought about my shortcomings. How would this have gone if I were the repairman? Perhaps, "Look, lady, I'm the professional vacuum repairman, not you. If I say the motor's bearings are shot they're shot," or "Why do you come here if you won't listen to my opinion," or "Maybe the motor sounds like it has since your youth, but it's been worn out that long."

He was still helping her deal with the loss of this vacuum when I left.

As I exited the musty repairshop and was hit by the punishing brightness, I thought about the merits of this gentle repairman who had the heart to take time to help this aged woman deal with the loss of a vacuum that was purchased about the time of her birth and was surely a beloved reminder of her mother.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Confessions of an Opera Whore: Lucia di Lammermoor -- Artistic Nirvana

It is really quite difficult to imagine any artistic performance better or more enjoyable than the February 7, 2009 Met Opera HD broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor. This was by far the most impressive of the productions in the last season and a half. Every aspect of every number of the opera was compelling and brilliant. Before attending this performance the thought had never crossed my mind that there might be a limit to the amount of beauty that one can comfortably absorb in an afternoon, but the cumulative weight of the gems strewn on the audience was crushing by the end. If I smoked, I would have definitely felt the need for a cigarette after being bombarded with huge runs of ethereal numbers, masterfully staged and performed. When brought to disc this will be the iconic DVD production of Lucia di Lammermoor and will not be surpassed for a long time. It may be one of the best recorded opera performances in history. The live HD Broadcast may have claim to the best opera “experience” in history.

The ballyhooed Anna Netrebko’s Lucia exceeded all expectations. One often hears of Netrebko’s great beauty, even her “sexiness,” before one hears praise of her singing or performance. From the way she is often spoken of one would think that she is the opera equivalent of another Russian Anna: Kournikova. But this performance removed any doubt that she is an impeccable, intelligent, controlled, and most gifted performer, a prima donna in the best senses of that expression. Her performance, which occurred only five months after she gave birth to her first child, was nothing short of astonishing. Her singing was ravishingly beautiful. She perhaps took no extreme risks and made few bel canto embellishments during the performance, but came through with exquisite high and sustained notes. Lucia’s first act aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” was convincingly delivered. She hit the mark during her duet with Edgardo, “Ah! Verranno a te sull’aure,” and her acting was captivating not just during the famous mad scene, but at every other time that she took the stage. Her mad scene will be difficult for anyone to surpass. Brava!

The singing in this performance was of a very high quality. Beyond Netrebko’s impressive vocal performance, each of the main parts was well sung. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, a last-minute stand in for the ill Rolando Villazon, was vocally supreme. His strong and clear voice was a pleasure to listen to and in good form. I have recently wondered, particularly after attending Marcello Giordani’s weak performance in La Damnation de Faust, where the great Met tenors will come from. Beczala may provide the answer. His impressive stand-in performance in this soon to be iconic performance will place him in high demand. Similarly, Beczala’s countryman, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, delivered a top-shelf vocal performance in the role of Enrico Ashton, Lucia’s wicked brother. His acting was also exceptional. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang the role of the Calvinist chaplain Raimondo, met the challenge laid down by the three main voices and was every bit as good. Colin Lee’s Arturo was wonderful too, as was Michaela Martens’ Alicia. Michael Meyer’s performance as Normanno seemed not to match the quality of the others, but his role is so minor that it could not detract from the otherwise nearly faultless performance of the rest of the cast. This cast proved that the Met has plenty of memorable voices at its disposal and that audiences can continue to expect and should demand the very best from Met vocal performances.

The use of a glass harmonica—a musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that produces sounds that sound like the ringing sound made by a wine glass when a finger is drawn about its rim—was brilliant and effective. Its eerie resonances fit perfectly with the themes of specters and the afterlife.

I earlier asserted that this may have been the best opera “experience” in history. I say that after having sat on that thought for a day. This performance, like no other that I have seen in the last two seasons, showed that the experience of attending the opera live simply cannot compete with HD broadcasts. It was often obvious that the HD transmission format was increasing audience enjoyment. For instance, there is a harp solo that precedes Lucia’s first entrance. In the house one would probably not hear the harp particularly well—and one would not see Mariko Anraku Armonica performing this solo at all if one were there live, since the harp would be down in the pit. As it was, the Met cameras had tight close-ups of the exquisite fingerwork required by this piece. This greatly increased the enjoyment of this number. Then again, as Enrico rages against a reluctant Lucia during “Se tradirmi tu potrai,” he strongarms her and forces her to the floor, where she remains long enough to deliver a number of her own. One in the house would have seen a small heap on the stage. Instead, the remote audience saw Anna Netrebko from a perspective that was as if we were lying on the floor right next to her, within two feet, with our chin on the floor next to her face. Later, during the mad scene, Lucia’s actions are performed with detailed precision. The blood on the veil, the manner in which the veil is caught by the knife as Netrebko brings the knife to her own throat—the impact of these details and gestures was greatly increased by the close-ups and framing that the cameras provide. And at many points during the mad scene it was as if we were permitted to sit on a chair placed on the stage right in the middle of the action. Then again, during the two specter scenes, the first where a ghost appears during “Regnava nel silenzio,” and the other at the very end of the opera when the ghost of Lucia comes to Edgardo as he lays dying, the close-ups added great impact. The approach of a brilliant, white specter in both instances led to graceful caresses that few would be able to see from the audience. These intimate little extras greatly amplified the performance and made it clear that this new medium of camera-aided opera viewing has something on live attendance.

When records switched from mono to stereo there were those who continued to maintain that mono was the truer and superior sound. Then when compact discs were created there were those who said they could not compare to phonograph records. And now, when these HD broadcasts exist there are still no doubt those purists who will say that they cannot compare to the live experience. But I just don’t see how that can logically be the case. The purists who hold out for the superiority of live attendance are superstitious and wrong. Why would we not want to see what is going on? Why would we want to sit in the twenty-second row, instead of seemingly on stage amidst the performers?

So this is my basis for contending that this may have been the best opera “experience” in history. For these reasons, I believe the best opera “experience” must be an HD performance—and this was to me the best of the HD performances in the last season and a half.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Girded Against the Met's Charms

This blog is taking a terrible turn for the worse. It is perhaps forgivable that when the blog started last year it had no focus. It was a glorified typing drill. I wrote about hikes, flowers, and weekend peregrinations. Harmless and uninteresting. Next the blog gravitated towards a trollish discussion of classical music and made the novel point that Mozart wrote beautiful music. All this was vacuous fun. Lately, however, cloying opera boosterism has hijacked this blog. Time after time my reviews of the Met Opera's HD broadcasts have been saccharine and uncritical. Or, even if initially somewhat critical, they suddenly do a full turn at the end to conclude that the performance was nonetheless unbelievably successful.

And today I am about to leave for the Met's Lucia di Lammermoor, with Anna Netrebko singing Lucia. I am like the whore applying lipstick or the gigolo checking his hair in the mirror on a Saturday night. I've been easy each of the last fifteen nights out, but wouldn't it be nice to prove that I'm hard to get just this one time? I really want to prove that I'm not an "easy date." But can I resist the charms of Netrebko and the Met?

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.