Thursday, February 23, 2012

Everything sucks

Thanks to my sister, I scored a free ticket to the Philadelphia Opera Company's Wednesday evening performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio, presented at the Academy of Music. I had a very good time, but, then, I had a very good time at the Met's HD broadcast of Götterdämmerung a couple weekends ago, and I am informed by a reliable source that the production was a mess, with hasty conducting and an embarrassing, "pitchy" Brünnhilde in the person of Deborah Voigt.

OK, America, now you know: my reactions to opera are unreliable. I never claimed to be an expert, but, since experts never seem to have a good time at the opera, I can't understand why anyone would aspire to expertise. In this case, ingorance is indeed bliss. Or maybe complaining is part of the fun. Who knows?

I am also informed by this same source that there is, in fact, no ideal recording of the Ring cycle. She didn't say so in so many words, but that appears to be the subtext of her comments online. To be sure, each one has its strengths. Some are well-sung, some are well-recorded in sumptuous stereo-sound, some have fine orchestral playing, and some are "well-conducted" (though I'm having trouble imaging just why the conducting would make a difference if the singers, the orchestra, and the sound quality are no good), but none combines all of these qualities in a single package. The trick to purchasing complete Ring, she informs me, is to figure out which of these qualities means the most to you, and make your decision accordingly. The bottom line is that you spend $150 to $175 on a set of 15 CDs, and it's essentially a crap shoot. The real Ring snobs spend thousands to get them all, which earns them the right to tell you which ones to avoid.

One thing is for certain, and that is the recording I have decided upon — based largely on reputation and price — is not to be borne. Fair enough. But I figure if it doesn't have outstanding singing, conducting, or playing, it has all of them to at least a middling degree, and for something I'm going to listen to at most once every five years, that's probably enough.


Jackie said...

I think your reliable source seems a bit over the top about the HD Live Gotterdammerung.

I suggest you read some other blog reviews to get a more balanced, less bitter opinion.

I had some issues with the production (more than some) and found a few moments of singing by both leads shaky - but not anywhere near "pitchy," to use a term never used, ever, in classical singing.

But overall, the vast majority of singing by all, including both leads, was strong with the lasting impression a very good one.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You're putting lots of words into my mouth. Did you miss the part where I said that the playing on the Boehm is good?

As for prices, of course you don't need to spend $150 to $175 to get a good set. Where are you getting those numbers from? It's not from anything I said.

Berkshire Record Outlet has one of the Furtwangler recordings for under $30, Krauss for $51, and a Keilberth I've never heard with a good cast for under $50.

Joe Barron said...

What you said was there are about five recordings you'd recommend over the Boehm, and if I hadn't bought it yet, "don't," which I thought sounded pretty definitive. Prices are taken from Amazon listings. I'm shying away from the Krauss because the sound quality (the latest remastering is well over $100) and from the Furtwangler because you said those Italian orchestras aren't any good. Amazon reviews are all over the place, and at least one or two reviewers manage to find fault with every recording. (It's even worse with Don Giovanni.) And why recommend a Keilberth you haven't heard? All recordings have good casts. The question is whether they had a good night. I only have Siegfried and GD left to get, and at this point I'm tempted to either a) buy the cheapest recordings available, or b) give up and stick to broadcasts. The requirements of staging on an epic music drama like the Ring are so vast that wink links are inevitable. As I've said before, it's easier to buy a car.

I wasn't blind to its faults of the Met proruction, but I couldn't find anything criticize on a musical level. No one I was with did, either, although we might have been paying more attention to the story. I do agree, however, that $16 million is an awful lot spend for a few pretty tableaux.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Jackie - "Pitchy" is a term of art used by bloggers everywhere. A more technical explanation of what I heard in Voigt's singing would be something like this:

The quality of her tone was inconsistent, sometimes sounding round and beautiful, sometimes hollow and poorly supported. She had some difficulty singing in tune, sometimes coming in audibly under pitch on sustained tones. This was not a problem for her ten years ago in roles such as Ariadne and Sieglinde. Perhaps it's her age, perhaps it's the demands of the role (she had similar problems with Isolde at the Met).

Joe, the reason I'd recommend the Keilberth that I havent heard 's that I know the singers and I know his conducting on the 1955 Bayreuth Ring. It's a safe bet, especially at the very low price.

Amazon prices: I shop around and wait for sales on expensive sets, or buy used or at Berkshire Record Outlet.

There are some surprisingly bad performances out there even on carefully-recorded studio Rings. The Janowski is excellent and has some outstanding performances (Act I of Walkuere is among the best-sung on record), but Theo Adam's Wotan is just awful.

Once again: saying that there are compromises in every Ring recording is not the same as saying everything sucks. There never will be a perfect Ring recording.

Joe Barron said...

So how does someone like Theo Adam even get cast if he's so godawful?

FYI, I just ordered the Gunther Neuhold Ring, with the Baden State Orchestra and Chorus. $12.99 for 14 disks. If it's good, I got a bargain. If it's lousy, over and above the usual compromises, I'm only out $16 with shipping, and I can always get something else.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Re Adam, here are some possibilities -

- The contracts were signed when he sounded better. (By the time the recording was made, in the early 80s, he was i his mid-50s with a lot of wear & tear on his voice.)

- He was the only Wotan the recording label had under contract.

- No one better was available in that particular block of time.

He was singing Wotan in the period between the disintegration of Hotter and the emergence of James Morris. The competition at the time would have been Norman Bailey (who mostly sang in England), Thomas Stewart (who mostly sang in the US), and Donald McIntyre. I don't know who was singing Wotan at Bayreuth at the time.

This happens regularly. The Siegfried we had for the 1999 Ring, Wolfgang Schmidt, was absolutely ghastly. Somebody in SF Opera's administration hired him anyway. I heard two badly-sung Aidas at SF Opera before finally getting one that was at least respectable all around. Etc.

Joe Barron said...

Or, to put it another way, everything sucks. Why do people even bother with opera? There's just too much that can go wrong to make it worth your time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think I must be missing something in your use of the phrase "everything sucks." Do you mean that literally? The lousy Siegfried stood in contrast to the good (if dry-voiced) Wotan of James Morris and the excellent Bruennhilde of Jane Eaglen, plus there was terrific conducting from Morris.

I have a heard only a few performances (individual or ensemble) so bad all around that they should not have been allowed on stage. I've heard lots more solid, professional performances than awful ones, and I'd even say I've heard more genuinely great performances by individuals or ensembles than I've heard awful performances.

Opera involves a lot of trade-offs; because of the number of moving parts, sure, there's more that can go wrong than when you have one pianist on stage. On the other hand, if the pianist is having an off night, the whole performance might be shot. In an opera, one performer having an off night still leaves the conductor, the direction, and the other singers to possibly be having great nights.

People bother because you never know when you'll get a transcendent performance and because it's such a great art form that a good performance is still a pleasure to behold. I've seen six productions of Nozze and each had something good to offer. In the "you never know" category, I bought a standing room ticket to a performance of Butterfly a few years back just so I could check out OperaVision (projection of stage action to some local screens in the balcony in SF). My reward was one of the greatest performances I've ever seen of anything: everything, but everything, worked more or less perfectly. Great conducting, superb cast, sensitive acting.

You just never know. And see? Everything doesn't suck.

Joe Barron said...

It's your choice, of course, but it seems you spend a lot of money and put up with a lot of disappointment while waiting for that one great night. It's worse than being married.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Are you talking specifically about me or about opera-goers in general? Because I am trying to put across that I see more good to great performances than awful or disappointing ones.

Joe Barron said...

All of the above. The high ratio of good to awful doesn't come through at all. It sounds more like you've seen some good produtions ruined by lousy performances in major roles, which averages out to adequate.

Tonight I'm sticking to chamber music.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think it is how you are reading me! I have not used the word "ruined;" I have not said a performance was spoiled for me. But I'm not going to hide or gloss over the situation when there's crap amid the good.

Let me put it this way: I saw three performances of Tristan und Isolde despite the awful Wolfgang Schmidt as Tristan. The great performances from Elizabeth Connell (RIP, just last week...), Violetta Urmana, and Victor von Halem as well as Runnicles's superb conducting made it worthwhile.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Is it more clear why I wanted to know what your priorities were before suggesting a Ring recording, by the way? I'm perfectly happy to swap mono and lousy Italian orchestras for Furtwangler's great, great conducting and the excellent singing on his Ring sets, but someone who cares about primarily about great sound and a great orchestra and is less concerned about the singing and conducting should just buy used LPs of the Solti.

Joe Barron said...

Well, now you're just being insulting. Don't I get to have CDs like everybody else? If you don't care about the sound or the orchestra, why don't you buy some 78s?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Uh...where did I insult you or anyone else? I don't see any name calling. I know lots of people who own and play LPs. The Solti LPs are in famously great sound, the CD releases, not. That is why I have never purchased the CDs.

My "someone who cares primarily about great sound" is hypothetical. In my experience, people who care primarily about great sound are audiophiles who own expensive speakers, tubed gear, and turntables. There is no insult in recommending LPs to audiophiles, because that's what lots of them prefer.

As for me, I own some 78s and hundreds of transfers from cylinders and 78 on both LP and CD, including orchestral recordings and operas.

I did not say I don't care about sound. I said I'm willing to accept the compromises inherent in Furtwangler's Ring sets. Hey, it would be nice if they were in stereo and featured the VPO! The fact that they don't won't keep me from listening to them.

Joe Barron said...

And I never said I don't care about singing or conducting. The crack about "just get yourself some old LPs" sounded pretty dismissive.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I explained what I meant, but, again, you are the one reading what I said as "just get yourself some old LPs" and as somehow insulting.

By the way, apropos of your original posting above, I've got a great performance of Tristan in mediocre sound (1950 broadcast mono) with singers who are committed/passionate but run into all kinds of technical problems. The mezzo is audibly over the hill; the soprano sounds like she will fall apart at most of the climaxes (and sometimes in between) and yet. The conducting is the primary thing that makes it great, with the singers' involvement the secondary thing. Knappertsbusch with Gunther Treptow, Helena Braun, Ferdinand Frantz, available cheap on various labels and probably some expensive ones too.

Joe Barron said...

If you say so.

Joe Barron said...

In any event, thanks for an illuminating discussion.