Statistical round up of 2014

standingovationSo here we are at the beginning of 2015 and it’s time to look back at the statistics for 2014.  There were 93208 page views, up 32.6% on 2013.  I think that’s not totally reflective of the underlying reality as a non-trivial chunk of the increase was caused by a short period in which The State of the Met got hit 9543 times.  Still, each of the twelve months was busier than the equivalent in 2013, though often not by much.  Analysis of various order derivatives of the underlying functionmight be an interesting exercise in non-parametric statistics but one I can’t really be bothered to do!

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Labour relations more popular than naked soprano

photo-14Something rather extraordinary happened around here yesterday.  The state of the Met produced a completely unprecedented amount of traffic.  This year traffic has been running around 6000-8000 hits/month.  It’s been steadily growing since I started in August 2011 but not wildly.  Yesterday saw 5916 hits; most of them on the Met piece.  It was 17 months before I got that many hits in a month.  In less than 24 hours the piece became the most read thing I have posted eclipsing the previous “best seller” which was, oddly enough, a review of the 1992 ROH Salome with Maria Ewing.  This has been steadily garnering traffic for two and a half years mostly, it appears, from people who Google variants of “maria ewing nude”.  It appears that even a naked Lady Hall can’t compete with labour relations at the Met.

Musing on Maria

callas27Marias seem to polarize the opera world.  Ewing of that ilk still generates more search term hits around here than even Calixto Bieito. In her day Malibran was the Maria of note and controversy and more recently, of course, we have Callas.  Callas was a bit before my time and it’s only really recently that I’ve listened to her much.  It started, ironically, with the Pasolini Medea where she doesn’t sing but does radiate a most compelling presence.  So, when Presto had the complete EMI recordings on sale for something like $20 I took the plunge and 7+ hours MC on CD duly arrived.  Just looking at the leaflet blew my mind.  She recorded everything from Rosina to Turandot and sang monster roles at an age when, today, she’d most likely still be in a YAP.  I have to say it’s a really mixed bag.  There’s some gorgeous singing.  The Casta diva in this box set is exquisite.  There’s also stuff that’s almost unbearable to listen to.  Overall though I was still really wondering what all the fuss was about.  So I got hold of a couple of documentary DVDs on Callas that included some footage of her on stage; concert rather than opera.  There seems to be virtually no video record of her actual opera performances.  It makes a huge difference.  It’s not like she does much in the way of acting but there’s something, like in the Medea, utterly compelling.  She’s still polarizing.  My partner likened her voice to scratching on a chalkboard and the cats seem to agree.  I was even asked this morning if the “Callas marathon” was over yet.  I think the investigation may be continued but tact may be required.  Also, am I completely nuts in noticing a certain similarity of timbre between Callas and Sondra Radvanovsky?  It’s hard to be sure comparing 50 year old recordings with my memory of a singer I’ve only seen live.

Maria’s Carmen

In 1989 entrepreneur Harvey Goldsmith followed up his Aida of the previous year with a spectacular production of Bizet’s Carmen in the amphitheatre at Earl’s Court.  This is a sports stadium like venue that seats 19,000 and a cast of 400 or so singers, dancers and supers was employed.  The production was revived in 1999 when It was broadcast by Tyne-Tees Television and has been available on DVD ever since.  Continue reading

Ewing’s Salome twenty years on

Sir Peter Hall’s production of Strauss’ Salome caused a bit of a sensation when it was first seen at the Royal Opera House and when it was broadcast on Channel 4 because Lady Hall, Maria Ewing, finishes up naked at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils. How well does it wear after twenty years? First a couple of caveats. My DVD copy is the Kultur release of a few years ago. It now seems to be available from Opus Arte and it’s possible, indeed likely that some of the sound issues have been fixed in that release. If anybody has seen the Opus Arte version please let me know in comments. Anyway, the Kultur release has rather muffled sound with the voices balanced well back from the orchestra and no real solidity to the sound stage which is a pity in this particular work and obviously affects my view.

The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances.

All that said, one feels from beginning to end that this was set up to be the Maria Ewing show. One really can’t fault her acting which is quite compelling and manages by turns to be chilling, hypnotic, seductive, perverse, frenzied and orgasmic. The choreographer (Elizabeth Keen) does a pretty good job of creating credible dance moves for someone who clearly isn’t a great dancer though there’s no doubting her commitment to what she does. Vocally she gets away with a voice that’s really not big enough for the role. Somehow she manages a lot of projection from not so much volume and her vocal acting is good. It’s an extreme case of Ewing pretty much making things work when really they ought not to. The orchestra under Edward Downes sounds OK but also suffers from the recording.

The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 TV broadcast. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation.

This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.

And just for fun, here’s a non-operatic bonus; a set of pictures of my copy of the 1938 edition of Wilde’s Salomé with pochoir illustrations by André Derain.

A girl called Maria

Maria Ewing has always been a bit of an enigma to me. It’s the range of roles I’ve heard her in; Salome, Dido, Carmen, Rosina. Soprano to mezzo and bel canto to dramatic.  In the recording under consideration here she sings Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was recorded at Glyndebourne in 1982 when she was 32. Her performance is typical Ewing. She acts really well, looks great (if her unusual looks work for you – they do for me!)  and sings really well without ever really sounding beautiful and occasionally giving one the feeling one gets watching somebody corner a little too fast on a large motorbike. I find watching her fascinating.

The production is as traditional as one could get and makes the small, old Glyndebourne stage look even smaller. Costumes too are absolutely generic 19th century comic opera. Blocking is basic. Mostly it’s very straightforward “park and bark”. All in all it’s the sort of thing you simply wouldn’t see in a modern opera house (except maybe the Met) and I’m sure it would please the investment banker’s wife in the Salzburg King Arthur. The singing and acting, Ewing aside, backs the production up.

John Rawnsley is a very broad Figaro with winks and big gestures and little mincing footsteps. He sings very well indeed but he has a voice that seems two sizes too loud for the production and tends to dominate ensembles. Max-René Cosotti is the Count. He has an old fashioned Italian tenor voice that works really well in this context. The rest of the cast is perfectly OK too and there’s a bit of a bonus in that Basilio is sung by a 33 year old newcomer called Ferrucio Furlanetto. We are a million miles away from Phillip II here! The London Philharmonic are in the pit under Sylvain Cambreling. They are balanced well back from the voices but seem OK to me. All in all, this is musically quite fine, if rather old fashioned, but dramatically it’s rather like watching superior panto for adults.

Technically this disc is about what one might expect. It’s taken from an ITV broadcast and is very much video directed for small screen. The picture is barely DVD quality 4:3 and the sound is Dolby 2.0. It isn’t particularly good either being slightly muffled and with quite unrealistic balance. Subtitles are available in English, French, German and Spanish. There are no extras and minimal documentation. All in all I think one has to treat this like a dodgy mono sound recording from the 1950s. It’s worth having if one wants a record of these singers but otherwise one is better off looking for something more recent. Certainly Dario Fo’s Amsterdam production is much more fun to watch.

Dido on film

Long before I got my hands on the Royal Opera House/Royal Ballet Dido and Aeneas, the film version from 1995, directed by Peter Manuira and with Maria Ewing in the title role, was my go to version. How does it stack up today?

Some things that strike me.  It’s very naturalistic. It seems to be set in and around a Tudor mansion and the costumes are vaguely that way too. The interludes that are normally danced are filled in with “busy” scenes that try to inject some feeling but aren’t nearly as effective as Wayne McGregor’s dancers. The hunt scene has dogs and spears and a real boar’s head (which Aeneas touchingly present to Dido in her bath). There is a lot of fire including a full blown pyre at the end. For all that it doesn’t seem any more “true” than Wayne McGregor’s much sparer vision. It’s also very emotionally restrained. It’s not really until the final confrontation between Aeneas and Dido that any real emotion intrudes and even then it’s quite restrained This is actually very effective and Maria Ewing is truly affecting in the final couple of scenes. Ewing is good throughout both in the singing and acting department and her looks help (OK I know not everyone goes for Ewing but I think she’s gorgeous!). Karl Daymond is fine as Aeneas. We get a sort of composite Belinda/Second Woman set up with some of Belinda’s music given to the Second Woman and them doubling up on other bits. While Rebecca Evans and Patricia Rosario are fine there really isn’t enough musical or emotional contrast between them and Ewing. Richard Hickox conducts the Collegium Musicum and it’s all a bit low key in common with much else. It’s worth watching for Ewing’s performance in the final act but is otherwise a bit of a snooze.

Technically it’s very 1995. The 16:9 picture is hard letterboxed in a 4:3 frame and it’s pretty soft grained. Sound is adequate LPCM stereo. There are English, French and German subtitles.