Author Topic: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera  (Read 5510 times)

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Offline Cato

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This weekend's (Aug. 25/26 2018) Wall Street Journal has a book review about CONRAD OSBORNE!!!

Why the excitement?  Conrad Osborne was one of  the best writers and critics on opera and classical music in the last century!   The review explains why we should look into his present activities as a blogger and into his self-published book on opera in America.  In the 1950's and beyond High Fidelity magazine provided some of the best reviews of classical music (along with stereo equipment), and I always looked forward to reading Conrad Osborne's pieces.

The Conrad Osborne blog can be found here:

http://conradlosborne.com/blog/


I will simply quote the entire review: the opening remarks especially mirror my opinions:

Quote
   By Joseph Horowitz
Aug. 23, 2018 5:44 p.m. ET

During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when classical music was a lot more robust than nowadays, High Fidelity was the American magazine of choice for lay connoisseurs and not a few professionals. Its opera expert, Conrad L. Osborne, stood apart. “C.L.O.” was self-evidently a polymath. His knowledge of singing was encyclopedic. He wrote about operas and their socio-cultural underpinnings with a comprehensive authority. As a prose stylist, he challenged comparisons to such quotable American music journalists as James Huneker and Virgil Thomson —yet was a more responsible, more sagacious adjudicator. In fact, his capacity to marry caustic dissidence with an inspiring capacity for empathy and high passion was a rare achievement.

Over the course of the 1980s, High Fidelity gradually disappeared, and so did C.L.O. He devoted his professional life to singing, acting and teaching. He also, in 1987, produced a prodigious comic novel, “O Paradiso,” dissecting the world of operatic performance from the inside out.

Then, a year ago, he suddenly resurfaced as a blogger, at conradlosborne.com—a voice from the past. Incredibly, the seeming éminence grise of High Fidelity was revealed to have been a lad in his 30s. And now, in his 80s, he has produced his magnum opus, “Opera as Opera: The State of the Art”—788 large, densely printed pages, festooned with footnotes and endnotes. It is, without question, the most important book ever written in English about opera in performance. It is also a cri de coeur, documenting the devastation of a single precinct of Western high culture in modern and postmodern times.

This Olympian judgment takes the form not of a diatribe but of a closely reasoned exegesis. It impugns philistines less than intellectual trend-setters, notably including operatic stage directors (with Robert Wilson’s catatonic Wagner the “last straw”). They are, in Mr. Osborne’s opinion, recklessly intolerant of earlier aesthetic norms, not to mention norms of gender, politics and society. His conviction, painstakingly expounded, is that the past is better served by understanding than by such remedial tinkering as (to cite one recent staging) empowering Carmen to survive the end of Bizet’s opera rather than submitting to José’s knife blade.

That Mr. Osborne has chosen to self-publish “Opera as Opera” is not really surprising. To begin with, it is several books, complexly intertwined. The subject matter ranges from philosophy and aesthetics to theater and theater history, to the mechanics of the human voice—and some of this material is addressed exclusively to specialists. The pace of exegesis is at all times unhurried; Mr. Osborne is intent on telling us everything. In fact, large chunks of “Opera as Opera” take the form of a copious diary that most editors would instantly scissor (and, if skilled, better organize).

Mainly, however, “Opera as Opera” is self-published because the audience for which the author continues to write does not itself continue. Let me offer a sample of what the Osborne perspective on things looks and sounds like: “Over these past five decades, continuing a process already underway, the operatic world has grown more tightly integrated. . . . During this time, the aesthetic ground has also shifted, and has now come set sufficiently to clarify its contours. The hostile takeover is on the books and the stealth candidates are out in the open. Still, nobody who is anybody will quite say so. Performance criticism . . . has been reduced, marginalized, and stuck in a lineup of popcult perpetrators, where it suffers the same woes as the artform on which it fastens. It is by far not enough for devotees to express exasperation and bafflement, or chuck everything into the Eurotrash bin. The dismemberment of opera is being undertaken by some of its most sophisticated, well-educated, and talented practitioners, and while their tongues are often in their cheeks, they don’t seem to know it. . . . Operatic true believers must show not that they don’t understand, but that they understand all too well, and that they have reasons beyond the lazy pleasures of nostalgia for their dismay.”

A useful starting point for absorbing the many-tentacled Osborne argument is the “metanarrative” he extrapolates from the operatic canon. It turns out that nearly all operas coming after Mozart and before Richard Strauss may be said to hew to a single basic story. An outcast male protagonist falls obsessively in love with a forbidden woman who returns his love. The fated couple encounters inflamed opposition. A clash of male claimants ends badly for the lovers. Mr. Osborne is hardly the first to notice that this template, or something like it, encodes dated notions of virile masculinity and divine femininity, but his treatment transcends cant, jargon and ideology more than any other known to me; it is adult. The challenges here posed for 21st-century preservation and revivification in the realm of opera are tackled vehemently, pragmatically and resourcefully.

The challenges ramify, multiply. Appended to the metanarrative is an even more original, more powerful insight. Here Mr. Osborne delves into the history of rhetoric and “orality”—the stuff of the “Odyssey” and its distant progeny. Relying on other writers, he limns the 19th-century novel as a watershed departure, displacing poetry and drama as the dominant literary mode, “with its tightly controlled narrative, its . . . increasingly antiheroic characters leading increasingly important inner lives, and its cultural saturation via print.” And then—an intellectual coup—he positions 19th-century opera as the apotheosis of the older movement: “For a shining moment,” he writes, opera “seized the torch from orality’s failing hand.” That is: For a century, grand opera rebuffed mistrust of venerable rhetorical traditions otherwise discarded as “artifice.”

With high-toned orality and rhetoric in retreat, a crisis in “great-voiced” singing was self-evidently foreordained. Here Mr. Osborne has a formidable precursor: W.J. Henderson (1855-1937), the most prominent American vocal authority for nearly half a century. Because he started so young and ended so old, Henderson commanded a lofty view of vocal decline. In the Wagner world, he could remember the prodigious Albert Niemann, whom Wagner himself chose to create the role of Siegmund; he reviewed the bewildering advent of Jean de Reszke, legendary in his own time as Tristan and Siegfried; he heard Lauritz Melchior, the Met’s reigning Heldentenor for two decades. Mr. Osborne picks up the thread—he, too, heard Melchior. He also frequently heard Jon Vickers, the last great-voiced Tristan.

Henderson wrote wonderfully about the singing voice. Mr. Osborne is more wonderful still. He can instantly evoke the frisson of Vickers’s idiosyncratic instrument. Why are there no great-voiced Tristans today? Mr. Osborne’s answer, incorporating early recordings not just of singers but of actors in several languages, references microphones and recording studios, changing styles of oratory and everyday speech, an unrefreshed repertoire, and newfangled performance priorities privileging directors’ prerogatives over those of singing actors.

Mr. Osborne dedicates some 34 pages to the decline of operatic conducting and orchestral playing, highlighting James Levine’s recently terminated Metropolitan Opera tenure. How Mr. Levine and his orchestra acquired such a commanding reputation is a question that deserves a book of its own. That Mr. Levine inherited an erratic pit ensemble, and fixed it, is undeniable. But the gifted Met orchestra of today lacks presence, depth of tone, kinetic energy. As Mr. Osborne observes, to encounter Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky orchestra in the same Metropolitan Opera pit is really all you need to know. I also retain dazzling memories of the throbbing and mellifluous Bolshoi orchestra from its 1975 visit to New York. As for Mr. Levine, the Osborne account cites chapter and verse: He was an opera conductor of high energy and competence who nonetheless failed adequately to articulate musical drama. I would add that the dynamics of harmonic tension-and-release never sufficiently shaped structure, or clinched a Wagner climax, with Mr. Levine in the pit. But never mind.

It must be stressed that “Opera as Opera” is not a sour pedantic exercise. Mr. Osborne craves emotional surrender. And he lovingly documents exceptions that prove the rule. His fondest memories include a famous New York City Opera production from the 1960s: “La Traviata” as directed by Frank Corsaro (with whom Mr. Osborne subsequently studied). Corsaro and the soprano Patricia Brooks collaborated on a portrait of Verdi’s Violetta saturated with fresh empathetic detail, including a daringly prolonged pause—dreamy, sinking into reverie—before the expostulation “È strano!” (“How strange!”) just after the party ends in Act One. “This activity took a little over a minute . . . very long for an unaccompanied pantomime inserted between the numbers of a middle-period Verdi opera,” Mr. Osborne writes. “More important than the mundane household activities [receiving a shawl, sitting down on a couch] . . . was the fact that we watched Violetta make a necessary but previously unremarked transition from her social persona to the private, emotionally charged state that generates her long, conflicted solo scene. How could we ever have tolerated the absurdity of Violetta showing out the last of the guests, turning around, taking a breath, and launching into the most intimate confessions of her soul?”

Mr. Osborne finds similar virtues in the singing and acting of the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and of the tenors Neil Shicoff and Jonas Kaufmann. None of these is a great-voiced singer (Mr. Osborne counter-offers Renata Tebaldi and Giovanni Martinelli ). Rather, they are singing actors who ingeniously combine a “modern acting sensibility” derived from Konstantin Stanislavski and his legacy, with voices that are balanced, versatile and personal, if never galvanizingly voluminous.

The penultimate chapter of “Opera as Opera” is a 25-page set piece reviewing one of the Met’s most admired productions of recent seasons: Borodin’s “Prince Igor” as reconstituted in 2014 by the director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Mr. Osborne: “[It] sold out the house and generated an astoundingly acquiescent critical . . . response of a sort you’d expect from collaborationists greeting an occupying force. . . . That this takedown of a production and sadsack performance should stir not a whiff of dissent, not a scrap of controversy, is a mark of a dead artform.”

Finally, there is an epilogue—“Dream On”—imagining a corrective opera company of the future. It is run by singers after the fashion of certain theatrical cooperatives, of which Chicago’s Steppenwolf is the best-known American example.

Some people will dismiss “Opera as Opera” (without reading it) as an exercise in deluded nostalgia. Don’t listen to them. Listen instead to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Verdi’s “Otello” on Feb. 12, 1938. The cast includes Giovanni Martinelli, Lawrence Tibbett and Elisabeth Rethberg. The conductor is Ettore Panizza (to my ears, as great as Toscanini ). If you prefer Wagner, Exhibit A is “Siegfried” on Jan. 30, 1937, with Melchior, Friedrich Schorr and Kirsten Flagstad, conducted by Artur Bodanzky. These imperishable readings document standards of singing and operatic orchestral performance unattainable today.

Conrad Osborne flings the gauntlet, relentlessly inquiring: What happened? What to do? It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the fate of 21st-century opera partly hinges on the fate of the bristling insights delineated and pondered in this singular mega-book.

—Mr. Horowitz’s 10 books include “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.” 


"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

- Brian Aherne introducing Rosalind Russell in  My Sister Eileen (1942)

Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2018, 01:26:17 PM »
An example of Conrad Osborne's style: a review of Willy Decker's production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera of New York:

Quote


...Finally, we have Decker’s “Director’s Note.” It’s perfectly kosher for a director to explain him/herself and to argue for any departures from the creators’ specifications (though once again, these last are not honored with representation). Like most directors working at this high a level, Decker is obviously intelligent, inventive, and highly skilled. His mind, however, again like those of so many of his brethren, rattles about in a postmodern, neoMarxian cage. We’ll meet some of his thinking as we encounter it in action.

...with the orchestral burst of allegro brillantissimo e molto vivace that would have marked that moment of unconcealment, a flying wedge of leering, crouching folks in black suits charges onto the scene. When I say “scene,” I refer to the white cycloramic structure that is the set. It resembles a clamshell, pried open at the front so we can see in, and open high in the back for projected background and assorted directorial doings. The black suits stick close together—we can’t tell who’s who, who’s singing, or which gender is involved—because they represent en masse the monolithic “bourgeois” . . .  “society of greedy men” (per W.D.) whose sole function is to hound Violetta (and all women) literally to death. The color scheme (black-and-white, broken only by Violetta’s red dress and, from time to time, flowers up in back); the attitudinal affect imposed on the chorus and comprimarios; and The Clock (a bit of downrent Dalì, also recalling the countless old movies in which clocks spin, pages flip., etc.), together with the circling, stalking presence of Death/Grenvil, lend more than a tinge of interwar German Expressionism and Surrealism to the “colori occulti”  Violetta has been inwardly nursing. The cycloramic shape, steeply raked toward the rear, facilitates much walking in circles, because (W.D. again) “Time . . . runs in circles.”

Does it? A great many operas bring back music from a prelude or overture toward the end, and drop heavy hints of doomed love along the way. Should they all be staged in circles?

...Expressionism, Surrealism, and cyclical motion are superbly à propos in works written in accordance with those aesthetic principles. La Traviata is not such a work. It is pretty much the opposite.....As soon as we’ve moved from a story about a captivating young femme galante with tuberculosis and her passionately sincere, rather naïve lover from Provence amid the glitzy haute-bourgeoisie of Paris, circa 1850, to black suits and the Circle of Time and Death, we’ve come a fair distance from the emotional place Verdi was trying to take us.

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2017/08/04/two-traviatas-1/
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Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: Weill/Brecht and Misapplication
« Reply #2 on: September 07, 2018, 03:17:57 PM »
Conrad Osborne has an essay on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht with one of the main ideas being that Brecht's influence seems to be stronger today than Weill's, but that the Marxist playwright's influence is misplaced today by opera director's:

Quote
...While the musical practices of Weill, the composer, have so far as I can tell left almost no impression on subsequent operatic creation (as distinct from their considerable influence on the American musical), those of Brecht, the playwright, are in evidence daily in the world of opera, which he had sought not so much to reform as to replace altogether. And they are apparent less in the creation of new operas ....than in the production of old ones conceived not at all in accordance with those principles...

  ...  (One of Brecht's artistic principles) is meant to apply specifically to the operatic situation, and it is given typographical emphasis by Brecht:  ” . . . a radical separation of elements” (“ . . . einer radikalen T r e n n u n g  d e r  E l e m e n-t e “).  Brecht placed this idea above all others where opera is concerned, and consciously aimed it at the very foundation of the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. When, Brecht argued, the elements of a work, of a production (and by implication, of work and production together), are gathered, so that they are mutually reinforcing and directed toward a common, all-engulfing purpose, when the contributing arts are intermingled, each is necessarily degraded, and functions only as a signpost to the others. Music, words, and scenic representation must become more self-sufficient. And they must, in their conspiratorial independence, seek a kind of theatrical disenchantment—not an “experience” (“Erlebnis“), but a world-view (“Weltbild“)...

...this concept of the Separation of Elements (is seen in) Robert Wilson’s production of Lohengrin (it is cited as a working precept by his dramaturg, Holm Keller). And it was much in evidence. While its setting was not really Brechtian (for although it abjured any “real-life” pretense, it did seek a kind of abstract enchantment), its slo-mo, pantomimed telling of the story was utterly detached from the rhythms and tempos, the emotional content, of the music. The receptor was thus left to contemplate, and puzzle over, this bifurcation; and the confirmation  of eye and ear, through which Lohengrin registers its wonted sensory impact, was destroyed. That wasn’t Brechtian, either. Brecht didn’t want the audience puzzled or confused, or “alienated” in the sense of “put-off.” There cannot be a Brechtian production of Lohengrin, because its music, whose power can be vitiated only through musical and vocal inadequacy, could not possibly have been written to Brechtian ends....


For the entire essay:

http://conradlosborne.com/2018/09/07/a-weill-brecht-refresher/
"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

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Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: The Microphone's Effects on Modern Operatic Singing
« Reply #3 on: October 26, 2018, 08:20:25 AM »
Greetings Opera Lovers!   8)

Conrad Osborne wrote an essay recently about the microphone and its influence on singing since the 1920's: fascinating stuff!

Quote
In my book, I write of a shift in the timbral and behavioral characteristics of operatic singing, marked by exceptions but general enough to be categorized, starting in the years just prior to WW2 and proceeding apace after it. I describe it (with many illustrative examples) as moving from a brighter, leaner, tauter paradigm to one that is darker, plumper, and looser. I don’t believe the microphone is solely responsible for this shift. But I do believe it was a major participant in it, and particularly in the weakening of sheer vocal calibre that followed. Bing Crosby (to make of him an exemplary stand-in for a thousand more) found his identity at a moment (a very long moment, embracing the aftermath of the first World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War) when the yearning for comfort, laced with carefree assurance and whistling-through-the-graveyard good cheer, was pervasive, and when a sheltering in the private and personal seemed like the only protection. A turn toward a cozier, softer-textured aesthetic was probably indicated, technology aside. But the technology was a mighty catalyst. And though the prevalent fashions in non-classical music have changed, they have served only to further de-nude voices of overtone and melodic sustainment. They are more than ever separate from the traditions of the acoustical voice, and even less constructive in the cultivation of young ears.

My emphasis above.

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2018/10/12/before-the-first-lesson-5-microphone-eye-microphone-ear-microphone-voice/

"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

- Brian Aherne introducing Rosalind Russell in  My Sister Eileen (1942)

Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #4 on: November 22, 2018, 06:34:46 AM »
I am not sure how many people are following this topic, but...


Conrad Osborne has a new essay, in two parts: the first deals with Karl Goldmark's The Queen of Sheba...

(An excerpt:)

Quote
...In Act 2 of Karl (Karóly) Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba), set in a lush garden at night, the eponymous Queen instructs her slave Astaroth to lure the love-dazed Assad with her singing. Astaroth obeys with a vocalise replete with Oriental-sounding intervals, long sustained notes, and ornaments. Assad responds with a short, beguiling aria, “Magische Töne.” It happens that for collectors of historical records, these are the two most notable of several fragments that kept The Queen of Sheba‘s aura alive over the past century. The vocalise (called the Lockruf) is most famous in the voicing of Selma Kurz (though an earlier version, by Elise Elizza, while lacking Kurz’s Guiness Book of World Records extended trill, would probably be almost as highly regarded had it been recorded later), and the latter in stunning interpretations by Leo Slezak and (in Italian) Enrico Caruso. And sure enough, poor Assad, though figuratively outside the studio door, soon finds himself—for the third time and counting—hopelessly enmeshed in the Queen’s on-again, off-again allurements. (I)We aren’t speaking here of plain old powerful attraction at first sight. We’re dealing with enslaving, all-enveloping, lost-to-the-world sexual intoxication that presents itself as the mother of all the games of tease, then play hard-to-get, that some girls learn at a remarkably early age....

...In this time of countless revelations concerning piggish men of authority importuning powerless women, the depiction of a woman of rank reducing men to rubble and creating social chaos thereby through the calculated deployment of superpowers of seduction is not, shall we say, the most natural fit with the cultural moment. Yet this fear of a disruptive female sexuality, evoked by the call of a voice, the drawing aside of a veil, the invitational water-nymph move, is certainly not dead, but only sleeping through our affects of transactional cool. As illustrated by the Queen of Sheba tale, it’s as old as the earliest myths and scriptures, then much enhanced over the centuries....

(An excerpt:)


...and the second is a review of Heidi Waleson's book on the decline and fall of the New York City Opera.

Quote
Heidi Waleson, the longtime opera critic for the Wall Street Journal, has published her recounting of the protracted death throes of the New York City Opera, which moved into this same theatre in 1966, and stayed until its self-banishment to scattered venues in 2011 (Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, Metropolitan Books, 2018). The subject is of automatic interest to those of us with intense, extended experience of the company’s work, and by extension to everyone concerned (and concern is called for) with the overall artistic and economic health of our artform...

...The gradual loss of artistic focus and lowering of vocal standards by no means fully accounts for the death of the New York City Opera. Many other factors, including demographic shifts that undermined both the audience and donor base; increasing competition for front-line talent; the weakened presence of arts in education (and the defining-down of what’s meant by “arts”); social changes in where people look for entertainment and what they’ll pay for it —these and more, not to mention the economic punch to the gut of the recession of 2008-ff., were and are involved for all opera companies, and for high-culture enterprises in general.(I) Waleson brings these into her discussion, and in her final chapter tries to be optimistic about some of the post-opera fauna that are gamboling about. I’m not too sanguine about all that. But meanwhile, Waleson’s book is most useful for the lessons to be extracted from her grappling with the nitty-gritty of one major company’s trip in the tumbrel.

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2018/11/09/the-queen-of-sheba-heidi-waleson-on-the-end-of-the-nyco/
"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

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Offline Mandryka

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #5 on: November 23, 2018, 09:07:18 AM »
He sounds a bit on the reactionary side to me

Quote
—“Performance,” he declares, “is our text.” He asserts that with renewal of the repertory long at a virtual standstill, we have tried to substitute auteurial production methods and cultural revisionism in its place, with disastrous results.

Accordingly, Opera as Opera draws on performances encountered over an eighteen-year period to first analyze styles and techniques of production (direction and design), and then to trace, in copious detail, the developments in the performing disciplines of conducting, singing, and acting that have loosened our connection to the canon. “The masterworks,” it flatly states, “are not before us.” In a central section, it also surveys the more general cultural background of this situation, in particular the influence of modern and postmodern philosophy and literary criticism, and the turn away from the master narrative which in the author’s view was the principal generating force behind opera’s greatest era.

It's not how I see things from London.


Quote
There cannot be a Brechtian production of Lohengrin, because its music, whose power can be vitiated only through musical and vocal inadequacy, could not possibly have been written to Brechtian ends....

He's forgetting that Lohengrin is an opera, it's not just music. The seductive power of the music, the way it makes us lose our critical, rational faculties, makes a Brechtian production all the more urgent. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming convinced that Wagner had hit on some politcal, psychological and spiritual truths, which is a bit unlikely I think.

Having said that I'm not a great fan of Robert Wilson, just because he seems to me to follow a bit of a formula -- he's got a bag of tricks. And too often I've seen the singers look uncomfortable with the gestures he demands -- he may not be a sufficiently inspiring person to work for. But that's a different point.
« Last Edit: November 23, 2018, 09:18:37 AM by Mandryka »
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Offline Wendell_E

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #6 on: November 25, 2018, 05:17:02 AM »
I am not sure how many people are following this topic, but...


Conrad Osborne has a new essay, in two parts: the first deals with Karl Goldmark's The Queen of Sheba...



...and the second is a review of Heidi Waleson's book on the decline and fall of the New York City Opera.

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2018/11/09/the-queen-of-sheba-heidi-waleson-on-the-end-of-the-nyco/

I didn't read the entire article on the NYCO, but just for the record, it's not completely dead, though it's certainly not anywhere near what it used to be. The current season is only four non-standard works: https://nycopera.com/tickets/

And you can see previous seasons, going back to 2015-16 here: https://nycopera.com/past-productions/

The closest they came to standard repertory last year was La fanciulla del West, my favorite Puccini opera.
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Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #7 on: November 25, 2018, 06:04:26 AM »
Many thanks for the comments!  Yes, the New York City Opera is still alive: let us hope that by supporting "non-traditional" operas they will find an audience, although with the plots of the operas offered, they may be painting themselves into a very small corner.

Speaking of contemporary operas, Conrad Osborne offers this coming attraction:

Quote
...we’ll bag two specimens of contemporary opera, (Nico Muhly's) Marnie and  (Kaija Saariaho's) Only the Sound Remains. And since the next bi-weekly posting date falls the day after Thanksgiving, this will be pushed back one week, to Friday, Nov. 29. Till then . .
"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

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Re: Conrad Osborne: Reviews of "Marnie" and "Only the Sound Remains"
« Reply #8 on: November 30, 2018, 12:50:40 PM »
Our Man at The Metropolitan Opera has two not very positive reviews (the second he calls a "response" rather than a review) has opinions of Nico Muhly's Marnie and Kaija Saariaho's Only the Sound Remains.

Excerpts:

Quote


...As in his previous opera produced by the Met, Two Boys, Muhly weaves an elaborate orchestral fabric that’s in skittery perpetual motion, with sonorities tending toward the range extremes. Firebird flits by early on, and hints of Respighi; there are upper woodwinds-and-chimes sorties, then splats and burps in the low brass. There’s no question of the composer’s technical command, just one of what dramatic end his command is intended to serve. The vocal setting is built up out of the lower range in calculated, abstract units, a sort of musical prefab, the “line readings” sounding like purely informational exchanges that sometimes signal a nervous urgency, but are without personal content. The unpoetic, denotational libretto is part of the problem...

..Nor is what’s cooking inside these people present in the music. The program synopsis informs us, for instance, that late in the show,  Marnie is “fighting her growing feelings for Mark.” But I heard no feelings growing, or Marnie fighting against them...


...But overall, the music’s feel is of craft for its own sake, of shapes and gestures as signifiers, of fashioning an abstract structure that serves as the simulacrum of an opera....



Concerning the Saariaho opera:

Quote


There are times when my professional curiosity leads me into experiences so akin to a bad dream, yet inescapably parts of my waking world, that I find my attention being drawn away from the event, and toward contemplation of the bandwidth of human creativity and receptivity. I mutter to myself, “The wavelength these folks are on—those who are receiving it  in all solemnity no less than those who have created it and are now performing it—is so far removed from my own that it may as well be beaming in some remote part of the cosmos, or even in an alternate universe.” Such is the case with the New York premiere of Only the Sound Remains at the Rose Theater on November 17. So although I’ll do my best to give an accounting of the proceedings, perhaps it’s best to consider the following as more of a response than a review....

... I felt covered from head to toe with tiny insectoid beings jabbing me with toothpicks and picking at myriad scabs, and I began to obsess over the fact that I’d given over thirty-eight-and-one-half dollars (a price that seemed reasonable before the fact) and the heart of an evening to what seemed to me a pseudo-spiritual, mock-Asian exercise whose deathly, sickly, fetishistic feel had nothing to do with any true contemplation of mortality or reverence for those passed from us....


OUCH!!!  0:)

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2018/11/30/noir-and-noh-two-new-operas/
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Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: Why is Gounod's 'Faust' M.I.A.?
« Reply #9 on: January 04, 2019, 05:28:33 PM »
Conrad Osborne wonders about the decline of Gounod's Faust:

(Some salient excerpts)

Quote
...

as with so many works of the canon, the salient reason for Faust‘s dive into the dustbin is the evident impossibility of casting it well. But its moral lesson, and the religious terms in which it is couched, seems to be a stumbling block as well. I think of two comments. One, from the director of a regional opera company and cited in an earlier post, was to the effect that Faust shouldn’t be done anymore because we no longer believe in its salvific message. The other, made some years ago by an intelligent and cultivated friend irritated by the evasions of a then-new production, was: “Faust is about the salvation of Marguerite, and anyone who has trouble with that should leave it alone.” The first comment I find obtuse. The second has to be taken seriously.

Who are the “we” of the first comment? Us seculars, I guess, assumed to include in all clued-in —an event of multiplication not a whit less miraculous than that of the loaves and fishes. And I suppose it is true that among today’s operagoers (to say nothing of today’s heady directors and designers), there are fewer who embrace in literal detail the opera’s last moments, in which Marguerite suddenly recovers her lost reason and, through fervent prayer and recognition of the man who impregnated and abandoned her as the true sinner, finds redemption and is borne aloft from her squalid cell on angels’ wings, while a Heavenly choir hymns Christ’s resurrection. How naïve can we be?

...How naïve, I wonder, were many in the audiences of Faust’s heyday? All religious literalists? How naïve was Bernard Shaw, something of a Mephisto himself? He scoffed, but he loved Faust. True, the piece demands acceptance of other elements belonging to the Christian worldview, such as the presence of Méphistophélès incarnate, with his magical powers and vampire-like terror of the cross; sexual transgression as the Primrose Path to damnation; holy water as the restorer of dead flowers, etc. And while such elements appear in many E-19 operas, they are inescapably in our faces in this one. But for heaven’s (or Heaven’s) sake: they belong to, and are necessary conditions of, the world of the drama, not the world of “we,” and as with any stage work “we” are merely meant to visit that world, whether we embrace it in daily life or not.

In the course of our visit, we might stumble into feelings aroused by that old world, and be forced to acknowledge their power. In that case, we might even have learned something of value. That is just what the “we” mentality fears, the source of its “Flight from E-19″—the discovery that, through the transcendence of art, the old view can still hold sway over us. Which would mean that it isn’t irrelevant, after all....

...(There are)  two related things about Marguerite that a singer of the part must find her way into—her innocence and her social position, which, when combined with  religious fervor and an easily tapped sensuality of nature (characteristics with which Gounod was intensely familiar) add up to an extraordinary susceptibility. These are again qualities we can find in many E-19 female protagonists, but which in this one determine the character to the exclusion of all else.  And I think modern women resist giving themselves over to them. They don’t want to be seen as swept away by male passion or male refinement; as gullible or credulous; or guilty for having sex; or dependent on (male) forgiveness from above. They want to be seen as capable, strong, smart, and free of guilt. Marguerite cannot be those things except on a level commensurate with her life circumstances, so performers neglect to enter into those to the depth of inhabiting them. That leaves nothing but a generalized prettiness as a reason for singing....


Osborne reviews a 1937 Metropolitan Opera broadcast with Ezio Pinza as an example of what we no longer have.

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2019/01/04/mia-gounods-faust/
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Offline JBS

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #10 on: January 04, 2019, 05:51:01 PM »
I disagree with his reasons.
I think the decline in Faust's reputation reflects
--a more general decline in Gounod's reputation
--modern audiences focus on Faust himself as the central character of a bigger story in which Gretchen/Margaret is merely a supporting role used to illustrate Faust's descent into depravity*
--a modern version would show Marguerite dying insane, and Faust raping/seducing his way through life until he dies.  Perhaps she only hallucinates being carried off by angels.The actual ending of the opera is too simple, with the good girl being redeemed and the villian meeting his just rewards.

*I have never read Mann's version. Does he have an analog of Gretchen in his story?

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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #11 on: January 04, 2019, 06:38:29 PM »
I disagree with his reasons.
I think the decline in Faust's reputation reflects
--a more general decline in Gounod's reputation
--modern audiences focus on Faust himself as the central character of a bigger story in which Gretchen/Margaret is merely a supporting role used to illustrate Faust's descent into depravity*
--a modern version would show Marguerite dying insane, and Faust raping/seducing his way through life until he dies.  Perhaps she only hallucinates being carried off by angels.The actual ending of the opera is too simple, with the good girl being redeemed and the villian meeting his just rewards.

*I have never read Mann's version. Does he have an analog of Gretchen in his story?



Perhaps an awry one: the Faust character, Adrian Leverkuehn, is forbidden to love anyone as part of the deal with the devil.  However, an adorable child, the composer's nephew, Echo (formally known as Nepomuk), causes the composer to love him, and as a result (the composer believes), a terrible disease kills the nephew.

The novel has less to do with Goethe's version and more to do with Thomas Mann examining Nazism as a (per)version of Luther's revolution and how both exploited certain tendencies in what Mann considered to be traits of a German national character.

Nietzsche and his syphilitic fate figure much more prominently than allusions to Goethe's theme of salvation, which would be hard, if not impossible, to find.
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Re: Conrad Osborne: At the Met, Otello Clashes With Contemporary Preciosities
« Reply #12 on: January 26, 2019, 04:43:04 AM »
Conrad Osborne comments on a good number of things about The Metropolitan Opera's production of Verdi's Otello, and at the same time comments on certain trends in society, or at least in New York City!  0:)

Excerpts:

Quote


...Dudamel certainly put a charge into the opening Storm Scene—been a while since we’ve heard that kind of disciplined aggression—and he secured a high level of execution throughout. As the evening progressed, though, I didn’t detect a strong grip on scenic structure, or on the score’s overall dramatic arc. Big moments (the Act III finale the prime example) were impressive once they arrived, but there wasn’t enough definition or sustainment to the episodes in between to give these climaxes the sound of inevitability. I finally came away with the impression of a significant musical talent not yet plugged in to stage/pit dynamics, and not terribly familiar with Italian operatic style in general....

...It does need to be understood that all these performers, including Dudamel,  were laboring like Herculi or Sisyphi against the production, which is alternately a dead weight and a centrifugal whirligig. Its fate was determined (presumably by its director, Bartlett Sher) in the earliest planning stages, by the decision to collaborate with the lauded and doubtless brilliant abstractionist-postmodernist sculptor/architect/industrial designer/installationist (also rock concert-theatre-opera-ballet designer) Es Devlin. Once that choice was made, the die (or, rather, the plastic mold) was cast. Ms. Devlin is on record as staunchly opposed to “mere scenery,” and she identifies as a child in the Robert LePage, Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch line of descent. “We are the next step,” she has said, and so she is (though I don’t know who “we” are)—a further step away from the integrity of an artwork, from an acknowledgement of creators’ prerogatives, from the humility about a designer’s place in the scheme of things that marks the work of the true theatre artist. Devlin’s rock concert designs, for a number of top artists and groups, loom large in her oeuvre, and she defends her work on them against “snobbery.”...

...designing for rock concerts and for Verdi’s Otello seem to me to have nothing to do with each other; that each presents its own set of intriguing problems; that snobbery can run in both directions (“You’re working for those opera toffs?”); and that if a stinking rich, high-profile job comes up, who am I to say she shouldn’t take it?


...(There is) the possibility that Devlin’s musical aesthetic is so malleable, her taste so indiscriminate, that her response to Verdi or Strauss is really indistinguishable from her response to Adele or The Pet Shop Boys—which would be one way of saying that she’s not very musical...

...To hear colors, materials, and geometric shapes like these (i.e. Plastic, translucent cubes are the main thing on the stage as a set) in Verdi’s music is to suggest a fairly serious eye/ear dissociation, shared in this instance by designer and director. We do have to keep in mind that this dissociation may be fully advised, for one article of the postmodern covenant mandates the separation, or even the opposition, of performance elements. ...

... To adherents of that creed, the less the sets of Otello have to do with the music of Otello—the more, indeed, they disregard or negate it—and the more they distract us from investment in Otello‘s story and characters, the better. They truly mean this, and state it openly. So there is every reason to suppose that Devlin is not just an inadequate, confused lover of Verdi and Boito, but in fact their active enemy.

...There’s not much point in examining more closely a production so fundamentally misconceived. It should be junked at the earliest possible opportunity....

...Much could be written on the broad subject of colorblind or color-conscious casting in theatre, which often comes down to the weighing of a perceived social good against a perceived artistic good. The moral choices are often not as clear as they might at first appear, and the topic needs an opening-up that gets beyond easily triggered emotions and reflexive political reactions. In opera, the debate shifts into a different gear, not only because music moves us onto a different plane even in works calling for verisimilitude, but because as a practical matter it is hard enough to find a singer of any description to sing an Otello, a Don Alvaro, a Cio-Cio San, or an Aïda without putting an ethnic precondition on the search. But this production choice moves beyond colorblind or color-conscious considerations. The presenters were not anticipating protests over their failure to cast an African-American tenore di forza in the title role. They were trying to give the slip to the Furies of “cultural appropriation” by signaling their sensitivity to its eminently debatable constructs, one of which decrees that no person dast tell the story of another who is not of the same ethnic or sexual persuasion.,,,

...In both play and opera, the ethnic divide between Otello and the society in which he moves is a central given condition of the drama. It is both the primary determinant of his outsider status (which he has in all other respects overcome) and his single point of vulnerability; thus, it becomes the crucial motivator of both his actions and those of his antagonists....To not represent this condition theatrically, to not show us the one dark skin among all the white ones from the moment of Otello’s triumph over his own kind through to the surrender of his sword, is to abdicate artistic responsibility. Even in a production as disengaged as the present one, that failure is the single most enfeebling element....

 

(My emphasis and note in red above)


See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2019/01/18/verdis-otello-dudamel-devlin-in-the-details-singing-the-moor-while-white/
« Last Edit: January 26, 2019, 04:51:15 AM by Cato »
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Re: Conrad Osborne: Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande
« Reply #13 on: February 18, 2019, 07:15:19 AM »
The critic reviews a Metropolitan Opera production of Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy which he finds less than adequate:


Quote


 Claude Debussy’s ever-beckoning Pelléas et Mélisande returned to the Met repertoire on January 15, in the production directed by Sir Jonathan Miller that was first mounted in 1995. This wasn’t, finally, an adequate representation of the work, but it had its positive aspects,..

...(For) Pelléas et Mélisande, it’s incumbent on us to have on hand a singing actor of the unusual sort who can hold our attention as Pelléas, and, even more importantly, another who can do the same as Mélisande. A general giftedness, a general kind of appeal, is not enough...

,,,what is absolutely necessary is that both voices be capable of sharp declamation in their lower ranges—”sharp” in actual verbal clarity, and in inflectional nuance as well. With a couple of relatively brief exceptions (Golaud’s jealous rage, then bits of his remorse; the lovers’ climactic ecstasy), the characters express themselves in emotionally restrained manner, registering their meanings in small but distinct inflections in the lower octaves of their ranges....

...Paul Appleby’s lyric tenor does fit the range requirements for Pelléas. But its grainy, head-dominated texture bears no trace of anything we’d call a core...he could not make the conversational stretches of the writing present in the vastness of the auditorium, and when he tried to sing out more strongly in the later scenes, the voice did not respond well—he was swamped in the Act IV scene in the park. ...Isabel Leonard’s pretty Modern Mezzo was never in any functional difficulty in Mélisande’s music...(However, her) performance was consistently Easy Listening, which is by far not enough.




Of more interest perhaps are his comments on Maurice Maeterlinck's marvelous play.

Quote


...Two aesthetic categoricals were from the first attached to Pelléas: Symbolist and Impressionist, the first clearly applying to Maeterlinck’s contribution, the second to Debussy’s. And while much subsequent commentary has rightly urged us to avoid the reductionist limitation of these terms, they are perfectly accurate as far as they go. I propose taking each in its simplest, most obvious meaning. A Symbolist work is one in which abstractions and essences are made to stand in for more elaborated, quotidian representations of objects and actions....

... In Arthur Symons’ foundational study The Symbolist Movement in Literature, he quotes Comte Goblet d’Alviella’s definition of symbol as ” . . . a representation which does not aim at being a reproduction,” and he characterizes Maeterlinck’s theatre as one of “The secret of things which is just beyond the most subtle words, the secret of the expressive silences.”  It happens that in Pelléas, for reasons I’ll come to presently, visual symbolization is not a productive approach, at least in my view....

...Maeterlinck was a mystic—not just a dabbler, but an avid student of a kind of mysticism whose spirit runs through his oeuvre. Why, then, should we not take Pelléas seriously as a Symbolist drama of the occult?

...The spirit of the mysticism in which Maeterlinck was immersed is that of a neo-Manichean dualism, which holds that the world of matter is evil, of the dark, and that the soul’s yearning is to escape it and return to the realm of eternal light, whence it had come....

...Since we have come from the light and long to return to it, those closest to it—and to the wisdom that is greater than our worldly kind—are those nearest birth and death, i.e., the very old and the very young. Among the very young, there are (according to this worldview) certain sentient souls, more often female, who sense this pull toward the light more strongly than others. In the opera, that would be Mélisande, youngest of the principals...

...Pierre Boulez rejects the common view of Arkel as ” . . . an old man superabounding in wisdom, gifted with ‘clairvoyance.'” Boulez sees him, rather, as embodying a ” . . . naïveté preserved, despite his age, beyond actual events,” and thus linked to ” . . . the natural adolescent naïveté of Pelléas.” I think Boulez is right to see a connection of spirit between Arkel and Pelléas. But he does not mention Arkel’s even more significant empathy with Mélisande, and he misinterprets the meaning of both bonds, I assume through an unfamiliarity with Maeterlinck’s mystical assumptions. Arkel has arrived at his “naïveté,” his indifference (or “near-blindness”) to the significance of worldly events. “We never see anything but the reverse of destinies, even of our own,” he tells Geneviève, and this puts him closer to the “innocence” of Mélisande—who has as yet learned so little of the world—and to a lesser degree to the “naïveté” of Pelléas....

...Golaud tries to comprehend why Mélisande is the way she is, but there aren’t any answers in the terms that he can understand. This at first arouses his sympathy and curiosity, then drives him to the edge of madness.

Golaud would appear to be the character who drives the action of the opera. ...(Melisande stonewalls all of Golaud's attempts at understanding her) ...essential to any interpretation of (Melisande)—how conscious is she of the probable consequences of her actions? Because if these are even near the the threshold of awareness, she is actually a manipulative little monster. Indeed, there is much in her words, behavior, and music, starting with the wheedling violin glissandos by which we and Golaud first detect her weeping, that could be heard and seen that way.

...

See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2019/02/15/the-mysteries-of-pelleas-et-melisande/
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Offline Cato

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Re: Conrad Osborne: The Continued Decline of Opera
« Reply #14 on: April 21, 2019, 12:19:26 PM »
Conrad Osborne laments not only the decline of opera in the present era, but also the decline of opera criticism:

Quote
...When people earnestly ask me, “Can’t you think of a single production you’ve liked this year?”, and I’m constrained to answer “Not really” or “Maybe one, partially,” the reaction is generally that given Bernard Shaw by Hermann Levi when Shaw offered to sing Gurnemanz better himself than the fellow who had just sung it at Bayreuth: ” . . .upon which he gave me up for a lunatic.”

...Some of the same people ask me, still earnestly, often pleadingly, and usually without malice: “You mean you can’t name a single singer of dramatic roles, in any voice category, that is satisfactory by past standards?” and I must reply, “That’s right, with possible occasional exceptions” (e. g., in the season just ending, Rachvelishvili as the Principessa in Adriana), I am again setting a standard that no critic could continue applying on a regular basis without threat to life, limb, and paycheck. Yet the truth of the answer is self-evident to any person with ears and experience, and the collapse of critical standards is itself a marker of opera’s predicament.

These facts cannot be repeated too often. As for the natural follow-up question (the tone now sometimes edging from earnestness to incredulous pugnacity), “Well, so what do we do about it?”, the answers, though not their implementation, also seem obvious. With respect to production: Make it a condition of employment that director/designers accept their place in the world as interpreters, not auteurs. And with respect to singing: Re-introduce classical music, as both heard and practiced, at appropriate age levels, along with languages and high culture in general, to the elementary and middle-school curriculum. Reintroduce a public speaking requirement (no mikes) at the same levels, for all students. Begin serious voice training for those interested earlier, certainly by the high-school years, and defend it against popular-culture activities. In order to accomplish these things, work politically to gain recognition of the high-culture arts as public goods. These would be some of the required changes, whether they seem plausible or not

See pages 3 and 4:

http://conradlosborne.com/2019/04/19/minipost-a-samson-follow-up-and-other-thoughts/3/
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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #15 on: May 24, 2019, 01:52:44 PM »
The conclusion of Conrad Osborne's comments on both the Metropolitan Opera's most recent performance of Siegfried and the opera itself.

Salient excerpts:

Quote


...The through-composed, continuous-action model that Wagner created with the Ring has to be through-sung and through-acted; it must show us logical behavior, at the heightened level of sung theatre. But such logical behavior, of body and voice, is that level of interpretation. It’s in the text, if one knows how to search the text; a director doesn’t need to invent it. And if the everyday normative level of reality is the only one worked on in this music drama derived from myth, we have lost the overarching atmosphere of the piece, so powerfully present in the music....

...Alberich is just an angry, salt of-the-earth blue-collar guy—a jobless factory worker, perhaps—who steps out of his own opening in the Act 2 wall of planks (not a rocky cleft) to walk about the bare forestage and register his bitterness in straightforward, manly tones. There’s nothing to suggest that a Nibelung is any different from, say, your local cable-repair man. As for the Wanderer, he’s a pretty good-looking fellow who carries himself well in everyday terms, but without anything in his bearing to suggest godliness, disguised or declared, or any consciousness of mission. And Erda? She’s a woman in a spangly dress who faces front and sings, not a semi-conscious, past-it-all earth spirit.

These folks are all coming onstage with the earnest intention of carrying out their assignments as they have been given to understand them. Lacking in all cases is the “heavy,” mythic element of their identities, an awareness that they are bringing with them something larger than even their usual operatic selves, and of fulfilling an important function in the telling of a story of universal fate. They avoid the old clichés, but replace them with nothing of theatrical import....

...there are several other means of evaluating the playing of an opera orchestra, the most obvious being attack, accent, the overall timbral impression and center of gravity in the sonorities (high-end or low-end-dominant?), the profiling of phrases and their purely musical sense of destination, and above all, dramatic intent—the quality of sounding like a participant in the unfolding of onstage events, conveyed by the above-mentioned means and through instrumental inflection and coloring, tension and the building of suspense through an underlying pulse, and the sense of arrival or of surprise at a significant occurrence. Measured by these benchmarks, this Siegfried was the palest, feeblest, most neutral reading of any Wagner score I have ever heard. This is true even by the going standard of comparison. Over the past thirty years, the Ring at the Met has meant James Levine, except for a couple of recent Walküres led by Valery Gergiev and Loren Maazel. As readers of Opera as Opera know, I have never been a fan of Levine’s work, and hold him responsible (who else?) for the general condition of the Met orchestra—technically proficient and sometimes aesthetically rewarding, but increasingly inert in its “Bandsmen as Mimes” properties. Levine at his ongoing, make-nice worst, though, was better than this by a goodly margin....




See:

http://conradlosborne.com/2019/05/24/siegfried-at-the-met/
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Re: Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera
« Reply #16 on: June 03, 2019, 10:54:23 AM »
This Conrad Osborne sounds like quite the self-important grouch. Why am I supposed to know or care who he is or was?