Die Gezeichneten in Munich

Upon the premiere of Die Gezeichneten in 1918, Franz Schreker was hailed as the heir apparent of German opera. He was compared favorably to Strauss; according to him, in a sarcastically self-aggrandizing text read at the beginning of Act 3 in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of this opera, he was “the only true heir to Wagner.” That was, alas, the high point of his career and in 1934 he died of a stroke shortly after been declared “degenerate” by the Nazis. Today he lives at the margins of the repertory, representing an extreme of a kind of overheated yet philosophical early twentieth-century opera that makes Salome look like The Magic Flute. A ticket to a Schreker opera guarantees a trip through sin, redemption, brothels, transcendence, the mind of the artist, degradation, and more orgiastic musical depictions of a sunrise than all the recordings of Zarathustra ever made put together. It’s great it if you have the orchestra for it, but once every few years seems about right.

The Bayerische Staatsoper does have the orchestra for it, as well as a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski that, while not exactly lucid, gets at the abstract issues in the middle of this piece.

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Siegfried: Have sword, will travel

Maybe the Wiener Staatsoper as a secret plan. Each installment of the Ring has been better than the last. At last night’s Siegfried, the orchestra was finally sounding good and there was some remarkable singing as well, namely in Energizer Bunny Heldentenor Stephen Gould’s assumption of the title role. On the other hand, the production continued to suck and there was some painfully bad singing as well, so it was probably just your usual Staatsoper mishmash.

Wagner, Siegfried. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/10/2011. Production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, conducted by Adam Fischer with Stephen Gould (Siegfried), Eva Johansson (Brünnhilde), Juha Uusitalo (Der Wanderer), Tomasz Konieczny (Alberich), Wolfgang Schmidt (Mime), Ain Anger (Fafner), Anna Larsson (Erda), Ileana Tonca (Stimme des Waldvogels)

No corners escape uncut in Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production. The look for this installment is more explicitly modern than the earlier ones, but no more profound. The Ring contains many set pieces that have to make, in some way, an impression that lives up to the music. In Bechtolf’s production, every one of these is an empty anticlimax. I do not mean to imply that budget correlates with staging quality, resourceful directors can do a lot with little money and infinite sums only abet the bad ones. Here, it is irrelevant whether it was a paucity of Euros or of vision that led to such clumsy use of video, trapdoors, and simply vacant spaces, but the production feels dashed off and sketched in. It continues to be the Seinfeld of Rings–about nothing–only with fewer jokes.

We open in a very large forging room with many small tables in front of a looming brick wall (pictured below). In Act 2 this wall is crawling with stuffed deer and other animals (echoing the horse statues of Walküre to no clear symbolic effect), and in Act 3 is replaced with a giant glass wall. The final scene’s backdrop is the brick wall tilted backwards. Siegfried’s fight with the dragon is carried out entirely on video, involving a giant lizard eye (pictured above), and is very cheesy. Siegfried’s bear in the opening is also a giant projection silhouette. That’s about all I got because much of it has already drained from my head.

Blocking remains action-packed but devoid of interest, though there were some awkward moments in this one as well, including Mime recognizing Wotan as soon as he came in (which maybe could have been made to work but he then recognized him again in the usual spot), Alberich having some sort of seizure, and various other large physical actions that have to be carried off with aplomb to not look silly, and did not work here.

Musically speaking this Ring is not one for the history books, but it is becoming one worth hearing. The orchestra seemed to be trying to live up to their name last night, and much of the playing was characterful, expressive, and clear despite minor ensemble problems. Adam Fischer paced things well and the balance was for the most part good. I would appreciate a stronger interpretive hand but that is too much to ask from an Einspringer. It’s a funny thing about the Staatsoper: at first the orchestra’s sheer sound is so good that you just overlook the sloppiness. But once you get used to them you hear the untidiness and uneveness that often lurks beneath the golden tone and blending. How much this bothers you is a personal thing. When they try and when they rehearse, they can reach amazing heights, but they often don’t seem to put in much of an effort and, considering the Staatsoper’s schedule, are sight-reading. This was respectable.

Stephen Gould was the hero the evening as Siegfried. His baritonal Heldentenor does not have a great deal of tonal allure but he hit all the notes with a power that just wouldn’t quit. You may hear more thrilling renditions of the Forging Song but never before have I heard a Siegfried who I didn’t worry for at some point or another. Gould always seemed in control. This may not seem like high praise but in this role it actually is. To this he added an engaging, energetic performance with good attention to the text (despite some pronunciation errors) and humor. He will be singing this role at the Met next year; he is a fine choice. Perhaps the Met can find him a Nothung that doesn’t have a giant bend in it.

The other mostly good news: Ain Anger’s Fafner remained offstage until after the fight, present only in cheesy video, but he made up for his lack of physical presence and relatively lyric (though very beautiful) voice by having a consonant party with his music. He made you believe that offstage somewhere he was probably twirling his mustache. Anna Larsson brought resonance and power to Erda, this time with legs, wrapped in a giant white sheet. Juha Uusitalo’s Wanderer was underwhelming but not actively bad, and Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich continues to have a metallic power, despite more weird dance moves.

Now for the bad news: Wolfgang Schmidt deputized for Herwig Peccararo as Mime, and I really have to wonder why the Staatsoper hired him. Surely there was time to find someone in Budapest or Prague or anywhere in Germany who could actually sing the role? My erudite companion accurately pinned his vocal stylings as those of DDR hero Ernst Busch while I thought of Kermit the Frog (yes, I’m cultured!). Either way, this was painfully nasal Sprechstimme and while he was occasionally kind of funny, having to listen to that for that long is agony. Though considering his dress in a white Bedazzled jumpsuit, leopardskin coat, knit cap, and aviator goggles, perhaps tackiness is appropriate. (I am very sorry there are no pictures, but, no, you should probably be grateful for that.)

Is this the first time Siegfried has outsung Brünnhilde in the final scene? Gould managed it amazingly well, and Eva Johansson’s Brünnhilde played a poor game of darts with her pitch and remained wobbly and shrill. After emerging from a sequined white cocoon dressed in yet more metallic taffeta, I kind of wished she would go to sleep again. She does not make me look forward to Götterdämmerung.

Speaking of Götterdämmerung, it is Wednesday and at least according to the Staatsoper’s website right now will be conducted by music director Welser-Möst as originally planned.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Salome: Twilight of the vibratos

Staatsoper rep night: Salome. Ancient production? Check. Underrehearsed staging? Check. Uneven singing? Check. Welcome back to the opera house where everything can go pretty much right but Salome can still come out bland. Camilla Nylund is an alright Salome, but I’m sure she’s better in other roles. Peter Schneider isn’t the best Strauss conductor out there, but you could do far worse. Unfortunately, this is an opera that requires a frisson from some source or another.

Strauss, Salome. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/2/2011. Production by Boleslaw Barlog (revival), conducted by Peter Schneider with Camilla Nylund (Salome), Tomasz Konieczny (Jochanaan), Wolfgang Schmidt (Herod), Iris Vermillion (Herodias), Marian Talaba (Narraboth).

Boleslaw Barlog’s production takes its visual inspiration from Klimt, but on this 196th performance there wasn’t much glitter left on Jürgen Rose’s sets. Gold floors are vaguely spotted with colored tiles, and generically Middle Eastern robes with mosaic bits are the clothing of choice. The photos here make it look rather nicer than it does in person, from the Galerie standing section it was just a brownish platform with some spots. The worn quality is less one of appropriate decay than simple drabness, and often there’s not enough color contrast to see what’s going on. I’m not sure what its angle was, if it ever had one in the first place. Something about the exotic as self, I am sure, whatevs. Of the Personenregie, today it is a site of park and bark.

Mystery Salome and Herod (not my cast)

Peter Schneider conducted a spotty rendition of the score. The orchestra obviously can play this piece very well, but I’m not convinced they were playing well together, and some moments worked while others were flat and unfocused. The character was somewhat soupily Romantic with Rosenkavalier tendencies, but not differentiated enough to give a decisive impression. It wasn’t bad, in fact much of the playing was quite good, but it had little shape or edge. Like the staging, it lacked intensity.

Camilla Nylund is a lyric Salome and was pushing for volume at many points. I would classify her as a Singer with Skills, not a bad thing but not an exciting one. She can be depended on to have thought through the role, give it the best she’s got, show good musical taste, and rarely make ugly sounds, but she isn’t going to get to Demented (see also: Adrianne Pieczonka). Her silvery soprano doesn’t have a particularly memorable timbre, and can get vibrato-heavy and strident at the top. Her characterization was well-acted but longing and girlish, at times almost fairy Salome, and I missed darker undertones. She deserves credit for doing her own dance all by herself, but it seemed something of a space-filler. Her most memorable moment was a creepy Sprechstimme “den Kopf des Jochanaan.”

Tomasz Konieczny was a hale and hearty, even a clean John the Baptist. He sounded healthy as well, with a metallic, noble sound that suited the part far better than his downright reputable looks and ordinary presence. The rest of the cast failed to inspire, though Iris Vermillion’s wobbly camp goddess Herodias was entertainingly over the top (sporting a glittery dress that I think we can call a harem Dirndl). Wolfgang Schmidt, after a painfully voiceless Aegisth in Elektra at the Met last season, turned up again to do the same for Herod. I know this isn’t a role where you expect beautiful singing, but there is a limit to how much hooting Sprechstimme one can be allowed characterization’s sake. Or vocal frailty’s sake, for that matter. Marian Talaba’s gargled Narraboth likewise did the evening no favors. The Nazarenes and Jews sang just fine, though the Jews carried on like dudes at Tevye callbacks at the First Presbyterian theater club, which made me a little uncomfortable.

To make Salome so competently unmemorable requires special talent, but the Wiener Staatsoper is a special place.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Verdi Requiem at the Musikverein: Halloween special

In a rare display of programming wit from the Musikverein, this year you can hear the Verdi Requiem on two fitting dates: Halloween and All Saints’ Day.  (Theologically speaking All Souls’ Day on Tuesday would probably have been most appropriate, but I guess the schedule didn’t allow for that.)  But Daniele Gatti’s unshakable control in last night’s performance didn’t allow for anything spooky.  It was an epic cathedral of a performance, but not a thrills and chills one.

This year for Halloween I went as a Catholic.

Verdi, Requiem.  Musikverein, 31/10/10.  Orchestre Nationale de France and Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien conducted by Daniele Gatti with soloists Krassimira Stoyanova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Francesco Meli, and Tomasz Konieczny

Daniele Gatti is a micromanager of a conductor, beating subdivisions and keeping a very careful eye on solo sections.  This wasn’t a very spontaneous performance and sometimes lacked momentum and excitement, but it was majestic, monumental, and mmm… awe-inspiring.  It was an interpretation of extremes, beginning almost imperceptibly softly (thanks, Musikverein acoustics!), broken up with exaggerated Luftpausen, and exploding into the louder sections.  Sometimes Gatti’s precision seemed counterproductive, as in the hesitant and oddly shaky fanfare beginning the Tuba mirum.  Tempos were slow with a running time of almost an hour and 35 minutes.  The most exaggerated slowness came in the Dies irae, here not a roller coaster but a monumental block, the wind lines emerging with unusual clarity.  The Orchestre Nationale de France sounded excellent and followed Gatti though all of his precisely planned changes of scenery–much more so than the excellent but enormous and not as subtle Musikverein chorus, which sometimes drowned the orchestra out.

The soloists didn’t blend very well, but since only two of them were the originally scheduled people I suppose you can’t really blame them (why do I have to write something like this for EVERY SINGLE THING that I see?).  Krassimira Stoyanova in the soprano part was the best match for Gatti’s style, singing with elegant control and reserved passion.  She never pushed and sometimes was drowned out by the chorus in the Libera me, but nailed the pppp high B-flat on “Requiem” and sounded generally fabulous.  Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave a more extroverted reading of the mezzo/alto part with a big voice that sounds like a real alto.  She has great low notes, but a very large vibrato.  Francesco Meli, substituting in the tenor part, has a nice Italianate timbre and fine phrasing, but sounded too lyric for this piece with occasionally strained tone and some tremulous piano singing.  Tomasz Koncieczny in the bass part was a very late replacement and sounded solid but not terribly coordinated with the others.

This concert will be repeated tonight.

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Cardillac: Es ist ein schönes Ding, das Gold

Everyone at the Wiener Staatsoper can breathe a sigh of relief: the first new production premiere of the Meyer/Welser-Möst regime is a success.  Hindemith’s opera isn’t easy to love, but it’s hard to imagine a more effective production of it than this one.  A few missteps aside, Sven-Eric Bectholf’s expressionist staging and a solid cast made this simultaneously overheated and distant work a compelling morality play, and Franz Welser-Möst’s loud orchestra made it an exciting one.  Pure gold?  Close, at least.

Hindemith-Lion, Cardillac (1926 version).  Wiener Staatsoper, 17/10/10.  New production premiere directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf with sets by Rolf Gilttenberg, costumes by Marianne Glittenberg, lights by Jürgen Hoffmann.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Juha Uusitalo (Cardillac), Juliane Banse (Die Tochter), Herbert Lippert (Der Offizier), Ildiko Raimondi (Die Dame), Matthias Klink (Der Kavaliere), Tomasz Konieczny (Der Goldhändler).

Despite having had to play lots of it, I’ve never warmed to Hindemith’s music, and this opera isn’t really to my taste.  It is intentionally lacking in sympathetic characters, unsubtle, and, while loud and aggressive, emotionally distant from the happenings onstage (only Cardillac gets a real name).  That would be the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (new objectivity) movement.  1926 is a bit early to give music this label, but you can see the signs, and Bechtolf goes on about it in the program book interview.  Apart from some hats, the Romanticism of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s source story, Die Fräulein von Scuderi, is nowhere to be found in the opera or in this production.

My preeeecioussssss..

Hindemith and Ferdinand Lion’s version of the plot, in brief: people in Louis XIV’s Paris are being murdered.  All of them had recently purchased something from the meticulous goldsmith Cardillac.  Cardillac’s daughter wants to run off with a man, he says whatever, I still got my gold.  Unfortunately the would-be son-in-law (the Officer) buys something from Cardillac before they elope.  Of course, the murderer is Cardillac himself, who can’t let go of any of his creations (but apparently armed robbery just doesn’t cut it).  But he is caught in the act before killing the Officer, and while the Officer initially refuses to identify his father-in-law as the culprit, the mob gets the idea and Cardillac is done for.

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production finds the perfect visualization of this score.  As mentioned earlier here, his source is silent film.  This shows up in the black-and-white color palette (the only other colors are gold, of course, and a few bits of red) and in the stiff, stylized gestures of the whole cast (well, most of them).  The numbers of the score naturally become separate scenes.  Like silent film is drained of its sound and color, the naive, non-psychological opera and its detached music are missing something: a third dimension, an aura.  The primitive, stiff visual language makes the music more potent rather than less, giving it a concentrated and economic energy.

The chorus is an indistinguishable, violent black mass in stovepipe hats and capes against an abstract black and white cityscape.  Cardillac’s workshop is a bright golden room at the end of a long tunnel.  His death transfigures him into a a gold statue; his creations are all that is left of him.  The King appears in miniature, accompanied by a hulking Nosferatu figure. There are a few problem spots: the new court established to catch the murderer is associated with dancers wielding briefcases that burst into flames, some black body-stocking dancers slinking around looked more silly than scary, and I could have done without the gold-light outline of a top hat at the end. And I couldn’t help but thinking of the gold-painted living statue Mozarts on Kärtnerstrasse upon Cardillac’s transformation.  But these all go by quickly, and overall the concept is brilliant.  (It is not an entirely new thing for Bechtolf, check out his Lulu, also conducted by Welser-Möst.)

If this opera has a heart, it’s Juliane Banse’s fragile Tochter.  She made everyone else’s gestures look amateur, finding great expression in a limited range of movement (her bio says she trained as a dancer, I can believe it).  She also got most of the opera’s most delicate music, including a gentle opening scene and a major role in the pentatonic-ish finale, all of which was sung with lyric sweetness and natural ease.

Herbert Lippert also found great success as the Offizier, also with a lyric voice that rose to the climaxes, for the most part.  All of the cast was on the lyric side, actually, which would not have been a problem had Franz Welser-Möst kept the (fairly lightly-scored) orchestra down more, but just about everyone got drowned out at some point or another.  Juha Uusitalo’s voice made a bigger impression here than it does at the Met, but he still lacked variety of color and his Cardillac was still a black hole of presence.  He also did not seem to have internalized the same gestural language as everyone else.  Alas.  A great Cardillac could have tipped this production from very good to super.

In smaller roles, Matthias Klink and Ildiko Raimondi as an early Cardillac victim and his ladyfriend nobly fought the orchestra and slinked around with great style.  Tomasz Konieczny was once more the loudest low male voice onstage as the Gold Dealer.  The excessive orchestra sounded terrific, playing with surprising violence and bite, contrary to their usually-genteel style.

Judging from the number of personalities other people in the standing room were pointing out (I didn’t recognize most of the names), this was quite the social event.  It got a very enthusiastic ovation at the end, particularly for Lippert, Welser-Möst, and the production team.  No boos that I could hear.  A very good night for the Staatsoper.

There are four more performances: October 20, 23, 27, and 30.  The 23rd will be broadcast live on ORF.
Photos copyright APA.

Next: I bought a ticket for Tuesday’s Salonen/Mahler Philharmoniker concert, which in the meantime has metamorphosed into a Welser-Möst/Bruckner concert.   Nothing against Welser-Möst, but that’s a bait-and-switch, Philharmoniker.  You know I hate Bruckner.  Not sure if I will blog about this one or just grumble about it privately.

Also, did someone say there’s a Jonas Kaufmann recital at the Konzerthaus on Wednesday?  OH YES THERE IS.

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La forza del destino: Showdown at the Staatsoper corral

Preziosilla is onto Carlos’s game.
(Note: picture is a different cast, though same Preziosilla.)
(Photo: Opera Chic)

Of all the caves in the world, you had to walk into mine.  La forza del destino might not be the most outwardly coherent of operas, but Verdi didn’t call it an “opera of ideas” for nothing, and it has an agenda under all that shaggy discursiveness.  Unfortunately David Pountney’s Wiener Staatsoper production, shorn of almost half an hour of music, has the ideas underlined and highlighted and little of the dark chaos.  This messily-staged revival and Philippe Auguin’s conducting went unstoppably forward like the plot’s bullet fired by mistake, and despite four strong singers it all felt rather off.  And the cowboys, well, they were a mistake too.  Giddyap, pardner.

Verdi, La forza del destino.  Production by David Pountney, conducted by Philippe Auguin.  With Eva-Maria Westbroek (Leonora), Fabio Armiliato (Alvaro), Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlos), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Padre Guardiano), Tomasz Konieczny (Fra Melitone), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla)

If you’ve ever met me, I’ve probably told you how you have to read War and Peace.  (Because you do.  It’s wonderful in every way.  It’s my favorite novel.)  La forza del destino is kind of like War and Peace.  Shit happens, some personal and some global-historical, and sometimes there’s little the characters can do to control it.  They wander through things that are larger then themselves.  Some glory in the chaos (Preziosilla) , others try to hide from it (Leonora, eventually Alvaro).  In the opera, you don’t have Tolstoy’s narrative voice telling you all the fateful stuff.  But if you’re at the Staatsoper, you have David Pountney, who’s even more pedantic.

As suggested by the opening video of a butterfly starting an enormous wheel, the production is about coincidences and unintended consequences (I was sadly distracted through the whole overture).  Christianity provides a kind of anchor for these characters adrift, who finally all end up assailing the monastery for help and guidance.  The inn is a place of momentary respite, where many Bibles seem to provide a veneer of security.  The period is sometime during the twentieth century, but only vaguely so (there are still swords for dueling).  As an interpretation it makes sense, but it hits you over the head a few times too often.  Moreover, its extreme minimalism and attendant demurral to create a world outside the principal characters undermine the portrayal of larger forces (of DESTINY) at work.  When we’re suddenly at war in Act 3 the means are not great enough to give us any real atmosphere, just some halfhearted projections.  Destiny’s force never seems adequately cataclysmic.

Crosses, crosses everywhere (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

The sets are simple and OK enough, but the chorus in the inn scene is a somewhat inexplicable band of sexy dancing cowboys, including also sexy dancing cowgirls, and later at war we gets sexy dancing nurse nuns.  I think most opera suffers from an excess of good taste but I’m going to make an exception here.  We have lost any opportunity to establish who these people are in favor of sexy dancing cowgirls.   If the dancing had been fun or meaningful, it would have been alright, but it was just awkwardly bad.  The execution as a whole was so messy that I really can’t say how good or bad the production as originally conceived was.  The buttons in particular were hopelessly off, with some awkward silences and interruptions–the audience had no clue when they should clap and it made the reception feel tepid just because it was unclear.  (The lights, blocking, and conductor should always signal when we should applaud.)

The score suffered from some major cuts, particularly in the choral and minor character material of Act 3.  Not that I really miss Preziosilla’s “Al suon del tamburo” and Trabuco’s aria as such, but they give this opera its texture, its wildly incoherent patchwork of random events and moments that confuses the characters as much as it does me.  Making Forza neater seems to go against its spirit.  And the one major rearrangement–reordering some scenes in Act 3 so the tenor and baritone get a break between their duets and then cutting directly to the Rataplan–destroys the wonderful sequence of the Act 3 finale entirely.

Opening scene (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper)

Conductor Philippe Auguin favored a fast and loud account of the score that, while sometimes exciting, similarly allowed for few excursions into anything.  We’re getting this sucker done in under three hours or else, he seemed to say (my recording [Levine] is two hours fifty-six minutes total and the intermission was 20-25 minutes).  By the time Leonora pled for pace, pace, I was thinking, you and me both, sister.

The singing was mostly very good, though not transcendental enough to overrule these production and conductor-ly deficiencies.  Fabio Armiliato offered solid and admirable Italian tenoring with good phrasing and intonation, fine coloring and very loud and rich high notes, faulted by a muscley and dry tone at the passaggio and below.  I feel kind of bad for never warming to him, but he failed to grab me somehow.  His acting is generic but he does manage to look impressively Jesus-like in Act 4 in a long white robe with his short beard and longish hair.  I think this was unintentional.  If it wasn’t, I have no idea what it was supposed to signify.

Act 3.  Several of the upper parts of this set were MIA last night.
Photo: Der Standard

Eva-Maria Westbroek has a fabulous soprano, lush and creamy and even right up to the top of the staff.  Above that it gets steelier, but not unpleasantly so (that is to say, her first two “malediziones” were better than the last one).  I would liked to have heard more rhythmic flexibility and Italianate phrasing from her, but Augiun was conducting like he would slow down for no woman or man, so I’m not going to say she couldn’t do it elsewhere.  She did some marvelous acting when onstage alone.  And as for her future role as Anna-Nicole Smith, well, if Anna-Nicole had had better taste she would have wished she could look that good in a pantsuit.

Zeljko Lucic has plenty of volume for Don Carlos and sang his aria with real beauty and musicality, but he seems too fundamentally decent and his voice too lyrically gentle for a villain who kills his own sister.  I would love to hear him as Boccanegra, but am not convinced of his Verdi-villain status.  Tomasz Konieczny, as Melitone, had a metallic edge to his voice that made me think he would have been more suitable, if less opulent.  Ferruccio Furlanetto is not the type to be confined to near-last in a cast list and I’m rather surprised to see him singing such a small role as Padre Guardiano.  It was lovely, and his duet with Westbroek had, along with Lucic’s aria, the best singing of the night, but, still.  It’s minor.  Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla had the misfortune to get totally lost in Auguin’s manical tempo for the Rataplan, but otherwise didn’t sound bad and, hey, she can do both a split and a backbend.

Finally, a Great Moment in Opera Titles: “The bullet in his chest worries me.”  (“La palla che ha nel petto mi spaventa.”)  (Even in Italian it is somewhat dry, but “mi spaventa” is more properly “scares me.”)

Bows, another lousy in-house photo from me:

Next: The Semele prima is tomorrow but I need a break and think I’ll go on Friday.

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