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Memory Play

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The Queen of Spades is one of my favorite operas, and I was very happy to attend the Met's revival of its Elijah Moshinsky production on March 15. But one thing kept nagging at me throughout the performance: why cast Dolora Zajick as the old Countess? I think this was a blunder, for reasons that don't have to do with Zajick's abilities. She certainly sang the role well — particularly in the second act, when the Countess recalls a few lines from Grétry's Richard Coeur de Lion. But Zajick is still in excellent vocal shape, still performing leading mezzo roles — she is still very much a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

I think this is key to the casting of the Countess: as Mark Thomas Ketterson touches on in his "Coda" in the March issue of OPERA NEWS, the audience's memories of the star singing the role should bring with her a certain gravitas, an emotional connection from the past that matches up with the Countess's own sad, backward glance. We need to be aware that it is really is an older woman up there — not a healthy, vibrant woman in her mid-fifties. It's what gives the role its real punch: our feelings about the aging singer and what she gave us over her long career play into the performance itself. I'm reminded of Elaine Stritch's observation that women in their forties and fifties have no business singing Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."

My choice for the Countess would have been Renata Scotto: she has more magnetic glamour than ever, and even though she's seventy-seven, I'll bet she could have sung the role superbly. Any other suggestions? spacer 


Around the Town

(Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

For a music-lover, it's always a kick to re-encounter the figures who, in an earlier stage of one's life, were inspirational and influential in shaping one's passions. In January, I dropped in at Symphony Space, where Richard Wilson — head of the music department at my alma mater, Vassar, and my all-time favorite professor — was conducting the staged premiere of his only opera (so far), Aethelred the Unready. I had heard it in a concert version a few years back and was more than curious to see what a director could do with the very fanciful story line of the Anglo-Saxon king whose unfortunate sobriquet so irritates his wife throughout their afterlife together that she prods him to appeal to the Muse of History to have his reputation adjusted for posterity. The score is on the prickly side, with its jagged vocal lines defying any impulse toward lyricism, but felicitous strokes of humorous orchestration abound throughout, and the libretto (Mr. Wilson's own) is imbued with all the wit and whimsy I remember from his lectures. In a performance such as the one at Symphony Space, where the diction was almost miraculously comprehensible and the simple, straightforward and clever staging further clarified the plot, the antics of the helpless Aethelred as he visits a Publicist and a Hypnotist in preparation for his appearance before the intimidating and memory-challenged Muse kept the audience thoroughly engaged.

On a more recent weekend, an invitation from a fellow Vassar alum, who was the most dedicated and instinctively musical of the Madrigal Singers when we were in school together, drew me to the Aaron Copland School of Music, to see what the Queens College Opera Studio was up to this season. The young voices in a David Ronis's tidy, attractive staging of Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco were strikingly well prepared and, under the tutelage of music director James John, more than up to the considerable challenges of Argento's tricky rhythms and rangy, harmonically difficult vocal writing. 

It's tempting for New Yorkers like me, who have the privilege of regularly attending live performances at the Metropolitan Opera, to allow their view of the city's opera-life to become entirely Met-centric. But these two recent forays into smaller-scale operatic ventures have whetted my appetite for more. Instead of paling by comparison with the productions of the big house on Broadway, I find each enhances my appreciation of the other. spacer 


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