Confessions of a Baritone Junkie: When Critics Strike

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Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 4.31.52 AMI confess, The Pink Flamingo is a baritone junkie – make that a Barihunk Junkie!  I love my baritones and I love my opera.  My dreadful problem is the fact that I could live with opera if all the other roles were stripped out of it and only those relating to the baritones remained.  Don’t think think that I am a person who is truly supportive the arts, which I am. Unfortunately, I could care less about mezzos, tenors, and most sopranos.  The world would be fine if we only had baritones.  Except – we need a smattering of the other voices as a remainder how how important barihunks are to the world.

Sure, back in the day, I may have been accused (by my best friend) of stalking the greatest barihunk of them all, Sherrill Milnes, but they don’t get any better than Milnes.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky comes a close second.  Simon Keenlyside is a greater Giovanni than Milnes, and I am loath to admit such treachery, but a barihunk is a barihunk. But – no one will ever be as amazing a Scarpia as Sherrill Milnes. Even though he is a base-baritone, and arguably the greatest in the history of opera, Erwin Schrott ain’t bad, either!

If you know me, you will know how much it pains me to admit that Keenlyside is a better Giovanni than Milnes.  The first time I saw Milnes, was in Giovanni, at the Met.  I saw him do Giovanni so many times after that first one that accusations about stalking could be made, and wouldn’t be denied.  My gosh that man could buckle a swash better than anyone since Errol Flynn.  He could also channel Wyatt Earp with his Jack Rance!

Fact is, you will never see another Scarpia as great as the film version of Tosca that Milnes did with Placido Domingo.  FYI, no matter what propaganda is being spun, Domingo is not a baritone.  He has never been a baritone.  He will never ever be a baritone.  He needs to bow out, with what grace remains, and let the barihunks have his roles.

The love of baritones might be hereditary.  My mother adored Robert Merrill.

I grew up listening to her play Robert Goulet records on her old stereo that was as big as a piece of furniture.  She had some Mario Lanza recordings, but I could never get into him.  He was a tenor.

There is just something about the male baritone voice that is one of the great forces of nature.  The first great modern baritone was Leonard Warren.  If you understand baritones, you know the touch of greatness.

Keenlyside is elegant, but not as powerful or heavy as Hvorostovsky. The Pink Flamingo is partial to Verdi Baritones.

After listening to four generations of the greatest baritones of their age, it becomes easier to understand what makes a great baritone.  The other day, The Pink Flamingo read about an up and coming Italian baritone who specialized in Verdi.  So, I listened to him.  It is my humble opinion that Italians are not good baritones.  Good baritones come from the US, Canada, the UK, and (maybe most importantly) Russia.  He wasn’t that good.  He will never be even ‘good’ or make it beyond a certain point.

One of the things that annoys me is that music critics rarely give baritones a break.  They prefer tenors and the occasional soprano.  Why anyone would waste their time going to see either voice in recital is beyond my comprehension, but then, I’m slightly prejudice, believe it or not.  Over the years, it has annoyed me, greatly.  Most music critics try to be self-important, ergo they must not be fair, need not know their subject, and must needlessly criticize. It was my experience that the magnificent Sherrill Milnes rarely got a break in New York.  I would attend performances, then read the reviews, wondering if the reviewer and I had witnessed the same thing.Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 12.10.52 AM

It is remarkable how petty some critics can be.  The Pink Flamingo thought it would be interesting to follow Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recent recital tour in DC, Miami, and NYC.  The reviews, of basically the same program, ran the gauntlet from ignorant to the perfect music critique.  Not so surprisingly, the best review came out of Miami.

Until my grandparents died, The Pink Flamingo basically stalked Sherrill Milnes from Palm Beach to Miami, attending numerous performances.  I saw him do Hamlet in Miami,  then again in Fort Lauderdale. I also saw him do Rigoletto there.  The night after my grandfather’s funeral, I attended one of his recitals in Palm Beach.

One night, in Lauderdale, my mother and her two sisters went with me, to see him do Rigoletto.  The auditorium was small, to the point where we had seats about 10 feet from the stage, left orchestra.  I don’t remember much about the cast, other than Milnes.  I don’t even remember the conductor, only that he was some senile old farte who had no business conducting a radio, let alone Sherrill Milnes.

The Pink Flamingo is fanatic about two things in life, baseball and opera.  I approach both much the same way, cheering my favorite baritone the way I would cheer for Johnny Bench.  I have been told, by numerous friends, that they could tell when I attended a game in Atlanta, when the Reds were in town.  Yes, I made that much noise when My Man Johnny was at bat.

That is my philosophy about opera.  I know when to applaud and not to applaud and how to behave, but I also know when an old farte conductor needs to be loudly booed.  I boo at the opera.  I also shout ‘bravo’, and stand to loudly cheer a good barihunk.  That night’s performance was deplorable, because of the conductor.  I sat there, complaining the entire time.

Finally, this man taps me on the back.  “Who are you and why do you know so much about this opera and Sherrill Milnes?”   I confessed to being a season ticket holder at the Met (3rd row left orchestra, two seats from the aisle) and was also a patron.  I had seen Mr. Milnes do Rigoletto several times at the Met.  He started asking questions.  Me and my big mouth answered them.

The following morning, in the Palm Beach Post, the review of the opera listed me as a knowledgeable opera fan, Patron of and season ticket holder at the Metropolitan Opera.  He quoted everything I said!

What I came to understand is that in South Florida, from Palm Beach to Miami, the music fans are quite sophisticated.  They know their stuff.  There is a history of classical music and opera that any region could be proud of, almost a proving ground for young musicians and conductors. This comes out in the review of Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recital in Miami.

“...After an absence of several seasons, Dmitri Hvorostovsky returned to South Florida for a superb recital on Saturday night at the New World Center in Miami Beach, presented by Judy Drucker’s Great Artists Series. Astutely mixing rarely heard art songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff with Italian, Russian and German opera arias, the Russian baritone was in peak vocal form. A large and wildly enthusiastic audience awarded him repeated standing ovations.

In this vocal recital by a major artist at the New World Symphony’s two-year old hall, the formidable sonic power of Hvorostovsky’s voice soared with an immediacy, depth and vibrancy only fitfully heard at his previous local appearances in large auditoriums with less flattering acoustics. New World Center is clearly an exceptional venue for vocal and instrumental recitals as well as orchestral and chamber music programs.

In the 24 years since his rise to operatic stardom after winning the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Hvorostovsky’s voice has gained in richness and depth. At times his dark timbre almost sounds like a bass, the low notes deep and firm. His stage demeanor has become much more relaxed. Hvorostovsky was clearly enjoying the intimacy of the event, even displaying a sense of humor at the repeated seating of latecomers on a traffic-plagued night.

Rachmaninoff’s large output of songs date from the early years of his career and are the least frequently heard of his works. In these short, intimate pieces, Rachmaninoff’s inspired melodic fluency and pianistic complexity are just as potent as in his large-scale works.

Hvorostovsky sang eleven of these masterful vignettes. His ability to spin a soft, caressing melodic line took wing in Morning and Do you remember the evening? My child, you are as beautiful as a flower displayed Hvorostovsky’s bass-like resonance while In My Soul, sung with intense emotional fervor, demonstrated his ease in the highest baritonal register.

Russian Orthodox chant inspired At the gates of the holy cloister and The raising of Lazarus, which brought stentorian declamation; yet the softer, more songful pieces offered Hvorostovsky’s finest singing. The understated beauty of Lilacs, luxuriant tones in the arioso How nice this place is and anguished cry of pain in Once again I am alone were simply thrilling….”

A few days before his recital in Miami, there was one at the Kennedy Center.  Are we talking about the same artist and basically the same program or someone entirely different?  It comes from the music critic at the Washington Post.

“…Very few of the things that were wrong with Dmitri Hvoro­stovsky’s recital on Wednesday night were actually Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s fault.

Even if you’re a superstar opera singer — “silver-maned Siberian baritone” is the press’s preferred epithet — with a rich, warm voice, it’s hard to fill a huge hall with a song recital. If Hvorostovsky had sung the same program — Rachmaninoff songs in the first half, a cycle by the Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov in the second — in the Terrace Theater, he would have blown everybody away. But the nuances of what he did tended to drift away in the large spaces of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, until he upshifted into more operatic mode in, for example, Rachmaninoff’s “I Am Waiting for You” or some stentorian utterances in the Sviridov.

And while this program might have drawn a full house in Russia, a lot of the music was unfamiliar to American audiences, and vocal recitals are the hardest sell in classical music, whoever is singing. The empty seats in the auditorium had to be a little demoralizing for those onstage. (Could the Washington Performing Arts Society, which presented the concert, not even give tickets away?)

On the other hand, Hvorostovsky’s sartorial choices were probably his own. With his “mane” now grown out to the shoulders and a long, flared jacket embellished with a striking, glittery collar, he looked like a lion tamer, seeking to control the crowd with an admonishing raised finger when people clapped in the wrong places….Still, it was a lot of unfamiliar and unexplained music with which to confront an audience. It’s not Hvorostovsky’s fault that there is such a disconnect between performer and public at so many classical concerts. But when the encores began and he started talking to the audience and kidding around at the piano (as Ilja’s music fell off the rack during Rachmaninoff’s “In the Silence of the Night”), I was struck that a barrier seemed to have fallen that didn’t need to have been there in the first place. He followed up with Iago’s Credo from Verdi’s “Otello” and a juicy Neapolitan song, Tagliaferri’s “Passione,” a nod to a popular taste that the rest of the program had only obliquely addressed….”

In other words, she did not actually know what she was hearing.  Now, the same performance was attended by a blogger who knows a thing or two about opera.

“...However, to my greatest joy, on Wednesday night Dmitri’s voice sounded warm and fluid, especially rich in the low register, boasting a few notes that any bass could envy. His breath control was impeccable and his legato line was naturally smooth. It felt as if having tossed the Toi et Moi scales off, his voice was completely re-born and gleamed in every shade of its tonal spectrum.

And even though at his every attempt to sing in the high register, his voice did sound a little too strained and his tone – a little too dull, overall, Dmitri’s performance was great. His stage presence was great as well. Looking really skinny and fit in his black tux with sparkly lining and a diamond bling on his finger (those two being his major image spoilers, if you ask me), Dmitri exuberated charisma and confidence. …”

Mandolin Vision
Mandolin Vision

Raisa Massuda, the author of the above review, did this one for Bachtrack.  Once again, it makes one wonder just what performance the Washington Post critic attended.  According to the post, there was a great disconnect between performer and audience.

“...Bringing to life nine “children of Russia’s dreadful years”, Hvorostovsky did not focus his performance on one particular character or even the whole glorious city that pre-revolution St Petersburg was. In his nuanced, deeply poetic performance, a drunken song of a poet drowning his sorrows in wine, the sobbing of a young bride walking behind her fiancé’s coffin and a bitter sigh of a mother unable to protect her child from the darkness of “the black city”, all blended together into one heart-piercing voice of the all-enduring Russian soul, wandering in the twilight of its unknown future.

As I looked around the house, I noticed that most programs with the English translations had been closed and set aside. During the performance the audience was able to connect with the music, enjoy it and understand the meaning of its lyrics through the power of the artist’s voice and, apparently, needed no other support to appreciate it. Hard as Hvorostovsky’s challenge to himself had been, he knew how to handle it and met it head on, turning his recital into an eye-opening musical experience and a concert to remember…”

Hvorostovsky performed at Carnegie Hall on a week later.  The Pink Flamingo needs to note that I saw Sherrill Milnes in recital there, ages ago.  Then again, I saw him in recital in Atlanta, Palm Beach, Greenville, Houston, Ruidoso, etc. etc. etc.  This is from the New York Times.

“...And so it was with Mr. Hvorostovsky’s recital of gloomy songs, featuring selections by Rachmaninoff before intermission and by Georgy Sviridov in the second half. Mr. Hvorostovsky, who recently sang in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Metropolitan Opera, has built up a career as a frequent recitalist alongside his impressive operatic résumé. A charismatic stage presence with a mane of white hair flowing to his shoulders, he seemed less at ease on this occasion than he has in previous recitals.

Rachmaninoff is primarily known for his solo and concerto works for piano and other large-scale pieces, but he also composed 82 songs between 1890 and 1916, the year before he left Russia to concertize.

Mr. Hvorostovsky began the program with a song set to Heinrich Heine’s “My Child, You Are Beautiful as a Flower.” There was plenty to admire in his interpretations: his smoky voice emotive in the opening line of “In My Soul,” his phrasing expressive in “Sad Night.” Mr. Ilja provided deft support, aptly illuminating the dramatically hued, colorful piano parts.

Before the second half of the program a Carnegie spokesman requested that listeners hold their applause between songs, but energetic clapping continued unabated between the Sviridov selections….”

Contrast with this review of the same performance.

Financial Times
Financial Times

A third critic wrote:

“…His sense of control over his voice was never more prevelent than in “A Voice from the Chorus,” by Georgy Sviridov, where near the end, he soars up to a high note, holds it, then flows downward with ease and grace.

The poetry flowed so easily from his total being that an English audience need not be afraid of the language barrier. The song choices were also so expressive themselves that all one need do was listen to the music and watch this artist do his job.

And that audience responded accordingly.

Accepting each song in the first act with great applause (gesture we were asked to refrain from before the beginning of the second act). Though some still could not help themselves, and this examiner does not blame them.

The last three songs in the second act was really where we felt his Mother Russian come through in song. The evening was capped off perfectly with “Petersburg Song” (which was the only piece set in a major key), “Those born in obscure years” (where he darkened his voice for added drama with great effect), and the deeply haunting “The Virgin in the City.”

He was even greeted with a bouquet of flowers from a fan, and posed for a picture for her young daughter. Thus proving his love for his fans. A love that was shared from both sides of the footlights.

As an added bonus, Mr. Hvorostovky continued that love with 4 encores; something this examiner has never seen done before….”

It makes The Pink Flamingo quite proud of my native South Florida.

Miami Herald
Miami Herald

This an encore from Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s gala in Phoenix, last January.

Once you start reading the reviews, it is obvious the critics who were the most harsh were neither familiar with the barihunk or the music.

It should also be noted that The Pink Flamingo pouted for ten whole years, in mourning, after Sherrill Milnes retired.

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