Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bellini & Kurt Weill

True opera devotees would not readily miss seeing any performance of Bellini's Norma, which opened at the Washington National Opera at Kennedy Center last night. One reason is that this is a magnificent piece of music, with perhaps the finest singing for a great coloratura soprano and a mezzo, too. It's always been a well regarded opera but Callas gave it new life in the 50s, although she also got hooted off the stage--mostly in Italy, of course--when she dared to perform when not in good voice. It is so demanding that few sopranos would try to sing it unless confident that they could negotiate its major demands on the singer's prowess.

My first time seeing it was when the Met used to go on tour, beginning in Boston, where I happened to be in law school. The stars that night who lit up even the drab and ill-suited Hynes Auditorium were none other than Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. They were fantastic. Some years later at the Met in New York I saw Montserrat Caballe, who was also excellent.

Last night the young soprano--she won the Met auditions two or three years ago--Angela Meade tried her hand at this huge challenge for any singer.  I thought she was marvelous.  She captured the great first-act aria, Casta Diva, which she had performed for her audition--it was presented in the documentary The Audition on PBS, which I saw. Like Sutherland, she sang it beautifully without straining--both made this torturously difficult aria sound almost easy. The veteran mezzo Dolores Zajick was Adalgisa to Meade's Norma, and both excelled in the famous duets, especially Mira o Norma.

I'm always surprised that this is an opera that is not as well known outside opera circles because its demands make its performances always special occasions. Perhaps the last time I recall opera making the front page was in the 50s when Callas walked out before the scheduled performance at the Rome Opera, leaving, among many others, the President of Italy in the lurch. Don't miss it--if you're now in or coming to D.C. in the next few weeks or whenever you might see it scheduled.

Today we saw a local company, the IN Series, mount From Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill, which I believe played in New York some years ago. It's a nice compilation of some of his best work--first half the works with Brecht that he composed in Germany, the second his Broadway phase from arriving here in 1934 until his untimely death in 1950. The strong first half featured several selections from The Threepenny Opera, which was memorably performed in English in the 1950s at what was then the Theatre de Lys in the Village. A friend who was with us was put off by what she called the lack of edge to this performance--it was too "nice" in that it lacked the cutting guttural sharpness that Weill's spouse, Lotte Lenya, as well as others possessed--including whoever played the narrating Streetsinger in the 1950s production.

The singers were young and energetic and I still adore "Pirate Jenny", made famous by Lenya. In the Broadway half, the show-stopper was "The Saga of Jenny" (a different Jenny, to be sure) from Lady in the Dark, a Weill musical I'd love to see, and which perhaps we may get a chance to see, since revivals are now the thing. It was staged by Moss Hart and was the first gig as lyricist by Ira Gershwin, one of the greatest of lyricists, after George's death. One is overwhelmed by the writers who provided lyrics for Weill, in addition to Bertolt Brecht (in German) and Ira Gershwin, there were Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, and Maxwell Anderson, who rose to the challenge of Lost in the Stars, based on Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing many Weill songs that were new to me, and I also recalled that much as I like the recording by the original singer of "September Song"--Walter Huston, of all people, in Knickerbocker Holiday, no one would suggest that he had even a good voice. Yet his rendition had great charm. Here, the young man singing it was fine, but I realized how much Huston's style meant to his performance's strong impact.

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