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L. E. Cantrell (Vancouver, British Columbia Canada)
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Verdi: La Traviata 2CDs
Verdi: La Traviata 2CDs
Price: £13.86

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars La Divina is terrific as La Traviata, 15 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Verdi: La Traviata 2CDs (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Studio recording made at the Auditorium RAI in Torino, probably from September 15-19, 1953. Originally issued by CETRA in its typically acidic sound.

SOUND:
Generally satisfactory early 1950s mono. Voices are well caught, as is usual for the period, but the orchestra and chorus are not as well served. All-in-all, this set is perfectly listenable for anyone but narrow-minded audiophiles, if approached with a little goodwill.

CAST:
Violetta Valery - Maria Callas (soprano, you better believe it!)
Alfredo Germont - Francesco Albanese (tenor)
Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father - Ugo Savarese (baritone)
Flora Bervoix - Ede Gandolfo Marietti (mezzo-soprano)
Il Visconte Gaston De Letorieres - Mariano Caruso (tenor)
Il Marchese d'Obigny - Gino Bianchi (bass)
Il Barone Douphol - Alberto Albertini (bass)
Annina, Violetta's maid and faithful companion to the end - Ines Marietti (soprano); Dottore Grenvil - Mario Zorgniotti (bass)
Giuseppe - Franco Rossi (tenor)

CONDUCTOR:
Gabriele Santini with the Symphony Orchestra of Radio Italiana, Torino, and the CETRA Chorus.

COMMENTARY:
This is Maria Callas' studio "Traviata." It was made when she was at the height of her vocal powers and setting the operatic world aflame. Here, we have Callas portraying her greatest role: La Divina.

There has been a great deal of talk about her short career, often relating to rising dramatic development coupled with descending vocal resources after a too-brief time at her peak. Doubtless, there is some truth in that, but every piece of biographical material I have ever found on the woman makes it clear that she was a very variable performer. In the course of a run of performances in a season at a specific opera house, I suspect that she displayed more variance than is captured in all her recorded works. For all her immense gifts, for all her wonderful talent, for all her strength, Callas must have been an insecure, even terrified performer, one forever hovering on the edge of flop sweat. Poor Divina.

On this recording Callas is everything that Callas should be, especially so, since still she had the support of her Mentor, old Tullio Serafin.

Act I, in particular, works extremely well. Violetta's fire and flash have never been fierier or flashier. There are high notes that are everything that those who adore stunt singing love. There are runs that are phenomenal. But all that is hardly relevant, for in the end it was Callas' essential rightness in that part on that day that made her great. And to top it off, Santini exerted great subtlety to make the goings-on at Violetta's party seem perfectly inevitable and natural (or as natural as a bunch of singing Italians in Paris could be. )

This recording would lead to a watershed event in Callas' career. CETRA was not in the big leagues of worldwide opera recordings. It was a sort of AAA or even AA team. Decca and EMI represented the Bigs. In very short order, Callas moved to EMI where she became their superstar (as to some extent she remains to this very day.) EMI wanted to do a "Traviata." Callas wanted to do a "Traviata" for EMI. Unfortunately, her contract with CETRA had specified a five year wait before she could record the work for any rival company. EMI couldn't or wouldn't wait. Serafin was hired to conduct the new "Traviata" with di Stefano, Gobbi ... and Stella. Callas had a cow! She took it into her head that Serafin had betrayed her. She slammed the iron gate on her beloved Mentor. Serafin and Callas never worked together again. The date of the Callas-Serafin breakup is as good as any to mark the beginning of her decline.

This "Traviata" is Callas' recording. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Ede Gandolfo Marietti who is deplorable--just deplorable--as Flora, are all right but not of the stellar magnitude of the EMI cast. Best of them is Albanese, a tenor who has often received scant praise and sometimes outright hostility for this performance. I quite like him. I'm sure that if he were singing Alfredo in any major opera house today he would be earning cheers. Savarese, as always, is problematical. It's not that he was bad, for he was never bad. But he was never good, either. He was always, eternally, annoyingly adequate--no more, no less.

Great soprano and a great conductor in a fair production--four stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 18, 2011 9:41 AM GMT


Jackass: Number Two Uncut [DVD] [2006]
Jackass: Number Two Uncut [DVD] [2006]
Dvd ~ Jeff Tremaine
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £2.99

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What a piece of ..., 15 Sept. 2010
"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!"

~ William Shakespeare, "Hamlet", Act 2 scene 2

Thus speaks the greatest of poets. Having seen Jackass Number Two (doubtless in expiation of some hideously appalling crime against humanity committed in a prior lifetime), I can now state definitively that WS never, NEVER saw a Jackass movie.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 12, 2013 10:28 AM BST


Halevy: La Juive
Halevy: La Juive
Offered by thebookcommunity
Price: £113.97

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good performance of an unjustly neglected opera, 15 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Halevy: La Juive (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Studio recording made over eight days in London during August 1986, with over-dubbing completed during a week-long session in Munich in February 1989.

SOUND:
Good digital stereo.

CAST:
Eleazar, a wealthy Jewish jeweler who holds a secret - Jose Carreras (tenor)
Rachel, his daughter - Julia Varady (soprano)
Leopold, a Christian prince and worthless hound dog who disguises himself as Samuel, a Jewish painter, in order to make time with Rachel - Dalmacio Gonzales (tenor)
Princess Eudoxie, betrothed to Leopold (or perhaps his wife--the French, German and Italian versions of the libretto have it one way while the English version has it the other) - June Anderson (soprano)
Cardinal Brogni, a one-time judge who, prior to taking priestly orders, had lost both wife and daughter when Rome was pillaged by the Venetians - Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
Albert, an officer of the Emperor Sigismund's Imperial Guard - Rene Schirrer (baritone)
Ruggiero, Provost of the City of Constance - Rene Massis

CONDUCTOR:
Antonio de Almeida with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Chorus.

TEXT:
An uncut performance of "La Juive" would be of Wagnerian length, well over four hours. It has probably never been performed in that way during a single evening. For this recording, the text has been cut to a little over three hours and fits comfortably on three disks.

The booklet accompanying the set has this to say: The cuts "included several spectacular crowd scenes, so beloved of Grand Opera, drinking choruses, and so on. The chorus opening Act V was cut" as was "Eudoxie's aria `Je l'ai revu' in favor of her show stopping Bolero.... We also included the ballet scene ... because ballet was such an indispensable element of Grand Opera."

DOCUMENTATION:
Libretto in French, English, German and Italian. Pictures of Halevy, the recording session, performers from the original production of 1835, two shots of the conductor and portraits of the five principal singers. Brief history of and commentary on the opera. Short summary of the plot. Track list that identifies singers, provides timings and refers to the appropriate pages of the libretto.

COMMENTARY:
This recording comes with a considerable amount of documentation but it omits one of the most salient facts about the production. The opera was laid down in 1986 without the part of Eleazar. At that time Jose Carreras was engaged in his battle against leukemia. After his recovery, a seven-day recording session in 1989 for the missing Eleazar marked the tenor's return to the recording studio. Eleazar was then over-dubbed on the existing recording and the set was issued to the public.

No doubt, sharp-eared audiophiles with absolutely nothing better to do with their time will be able to detect the joins. I have not noticed them and I have no wish to find them.

"La Juive" was first performed in Paris in 1835, the year of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." It is a classic French Grand Opera in the canonical five-act form, with its ballets placed suitably for the convenience of the influential Jockey Club, whose members always arrived fashionably late at the opera house. (An example that pig-headed Wagner refused to heed some years later with his "Tannhaeuser.")

Halevy was very much a professional in the world of opera. His librettist was the ubiquitous Eugene Scribe, whose verses (often commissioned from others) were hardly memorable but who certainly knew how to construct a well-made play full of spectacles.

All this makes Halevy's choice of casting doubly peculiar. His five main singers consist of two tenors, two sopranos and a bass. Admittedly, Eleazar is a dramatic part made for such heavyweight tenors as Caruso and Tucker, while Leopold is a very high-flying lyric tenor. On the other hand, the two sopranos, Rachel and Eudoxie, both in love with Leopold and inclined to talk about it, are destined to create aural confusion.

"La Juive" takes place 1414, during the Council of Constance, a town portrayed as a great deal more anti-Jewish than, say, Teheran today. The fairly intimate plot involving the five main characters was clearly designed to lead to and intertwine among a series of grandiose and expensive stage spectacles. The music has a more muscular nature than I, for one, associate with French opera and quite often sounds like early Verdi (who in 1835 had yet to compose his first opera.) There are also definite hints of things that would come to be known as "Wagnerian," not the least of which is the way the structure of the opening scene prefigures "Die Meistersinger."

"La Juive" was a popular opera in the Nineteenth Century but it effectively faded out of the standard repertory after the 1920s. It has always evoked mixed responses: Berlioz and Verdi disparaged it, while Mahler and Wagner (of all unlikely people!) were fans.

The performance is good. The orchestra and chorus are certainly up to the challenge, although I find some parts too slow for my personal taste. Carreras, here at the beginning of the second state of his voice, sounds fine, but he is clearly not what he had once been. Gonzales is good, too, but his voice is only a little lighter than Carreras' and hard to distinguish from it. Both sopranos are fine but even more difficult to tell apart. The bass, Furlanetto, is excellent and probably the best-suited of the five for the requirements of his part. This is a polyglot cast whose French may sometimes disturb linguistic purists, but that doesn't bother me a bit.

As a good performance in more-or-less up-to-date sound from a strong cast in an opera considerably better than its performance frequency would suggest, I think this "La Juive" is worth five stars.

However, there is a better performance available. Opera d'Oro has a live recording of Richard Tucker singing Eleazar in a production that squeezed Scribe's five flabby acts into three blazing ones. It fits onto two disks. The tenor who sings Leopold is a satisfactory high-flyer whom no one could ever mistake for Tucker. And Richard Tucker was born to portray Eleazar. Listen to him belt out that old warhorse "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" and hear the cheers that follow it--then you'll know what bringing down the house really means. The sound of the inexpensive Od'O set is just so-so.

Get the Carreras/Varady version for more music and better sound. Get the Tucker set to hear what opera should be.


Nerone (1957)
Nerone (1957)
Price: £11.94

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A so-so opera in so-so sound. For dedicated fans only, 15 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Nerone (1957) (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Live performance from Teatro San Carlo in Naples, November 30, 1957.

SOUND:
This mono recording sounds like something heard on an AM radio in a 1955 Chevy. There is a bit of stage pounding and foot stomping, as well as some tepid audience reaction. The set is listenable--but only just.

CAST:
Nerone, Roman emperor and memorable monster - Mirto Picchi (tenor)
Simon Mago, swindler, magician and cult leader - Mario Petri (bass)
Asteria, Simon's sometime stalker, assistant, lover and nemesis - Anna de Cavalieri (soprano)
Fanuel, a leader of the Christian community in Rome - Giangiacomo Guelfi (baritone)
Rubria, a Christian woman with secrets - Adriana Lazzarini (mezzo soprano)
Gobrias, Simon's disciple - Piero de Palma (tenor)
Perside, a Christian - Anna di Stasio (mezzo soprano)
Tigellino, a high-ranking Roman - Ferruccio Mazzoli
Dositeo, a pagan priest and henchman to Simon - Plinio Clabassi
Cerinto, another of Simon's henchmen - Valeria Escalar

CONDUCTOR:
Franco Capuano with the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro San Carlo, Naples.

FORMAT:
Disk 1: Act I (The Appian Way), tracks 1-11; Act II (The Temple of Simon Magus), tracks 12-20; 76:51.
Disk 2: Act III (The Orchard), tracks 1-7; Act IV (The Circus Maximus), tracks 8-19; 74:08.

TEXT:
Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) struggled with "Nerone" over parts of five decades. He never finished it. He conceived the opera in true Grand Opera fashion with five acts. For the fifth act, only a few vague musical sketches were found, not enough for any posthumous reconstruction of what Boito had in mind. For the rest of the opera, Boito left enough for Toscanini to commission two composers, Tommasini and Smareglia, to cobble together the four act version that appears on this set. Toscanini conducted the premiere of this "Nerone" at La Scala in 1924.

Although this opera is called "Nerone," it pretty much starts with Simon Magus, is driven by his plots and schemes, and ends not long after his death. Nero, by comparison, is a subordinate character. I suppose that Boito's intended five act version might have devoted much of the last act to the demented emperor and thus justified the opera's title. As it stands now, the piece should be called "Simon Mago."

COMMENTARY:
Overall, the music of "Nerone" exhibits a high level of competence. On the other hand, after listening to the opera a couple of times and to some parts of it more than that, I am at a loss to identify any highpoints. Throughout "Nerone" I found myself being reminded of those overblown, wide-screen, Hollywood epics set in imperial Rome: "The Robe," "Ben Hur" and the others of that ilk. There is nothing in "Nerone" that manages to match even the lackluster impact of "Polliuto," an opera of similar setting that was very much the run of Donizetti's mill.

I regard the performance as basically sound. There is a certain lack of energy, but I attribute that more to the composer than the performers. Giangiacomo Guelfi is the only member of the cast that I would place among the top rank of singers, but he is joined by the ever-reliable comprimario Piero de Palma and a solid group of B-list performers, right across the board. I'd be perfectly happy to attend a performance with this cast at any opera house today.

This is an opera and a recording for the more serious fan and dedicated collector. For that kind of person, I give this "Nerone" four stars rather than the much lower rating I'd otherwise slap on it.


Lelisir Damour
Lelisir Damour
Price: £18.11

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good "Elixir of Love" with Bergonzi at his blazing best, 14 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Lelisir Damour (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Live 1967 performance from the May Festival in Florence.

SOUND:
Overall the sound is generally satisfactory. No-one will confuse it with a digital studio recording or even a live recording from Bayreuth, but not bad at all for a live performance. Stage noises are minimal and the audience is better behaved than many Italian audiences.

CAST:
Adina, a prosperous country landowner inclined to be flirtatious and flighty - Renata Scotto (soprano)
Nemorino, country bumpkin and prize chump hopelessly in love with Adina - Carlo Bergonzi (tenor)
Belcore, a sergeant in a regiment encamped near Adina's farm, hopelessly in love with Belcore but also inclined to marry Adina - Giuseppe Taddei (baritone)
Doctor Dulcamara, a traveling quack, purveyor of bogus nostrums and love potions, in love with money and his next meal - Carlo Cava (bass-baritone)
Gianetta, a country girl who is not entirely averse to snagging a wealthy husband - Renza Jotti (mezzo-soprano)

CONDUCTOR:
Gianandrea Gavazzeni with the Florence May Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

TEXT:
This recording includes the performance cuts that were traditional for more than a century. Some earlier Amazon US reviewers are clearly appalled by that fact and are quite evidently suffering the vapors because of it. I do not adhere to the cult of recording every note ever written or re-affirming every preliminary draft and bad idea. The simple fact is that original intentions sometimes do not survive encounters with real audiences. Opera is theater at its very largest and not every academic restorer understands that. If you have any doubts on the matter, just consider the cataclysmic effect on "The Tales of Hoffmann" when "restored" to Wagnerian length, as it is on some recent recordings.

COMMENTARY:
"L'elisir d'amore" is yet another opera that can be traced back to that ubiquitous hack of all seasons, Eugene Scribe. Scribe's original libretto, "Le philtre," had been set to music by Auber in 1831, to no particular effect. In 1832, Donizetti needed a libretto on fairly short notice. His hack librettist, Felice Romani, knew a good thing when he could steal it. "Le philtre" was quickly paraphrased into Italian doggerel as "L'elisir d'amore" Donizetti devoted a long time--a full month!--to setting it. "L'elisir d'amore" opened to triumph in Milan in May 1832. One hundred and thirty five years later, the Florence May Festival offered this fine performance.

There are three international stars among the singers, but the performance really belongs to Carlo Bergonzi. The always acute and knowledgeable Amazon US reviewer Armindo was so impressed that he was moved to utter these exclamations: "Bergonzi is the most characterful and romantic Nemorino ever! It's really unbelievable how much feeling and spirit he infuses in his singing without ever reducing its musical quality! I know no other singer--male or female--who ever achieved such level of musicality. He truly sounds like the young bumpkin! The most idiomatic and tender Una furtiva lagrima you will ever hear, is only one highlight of his performance." I am not quite as bowled over as Armindo. I think Ferruccio Tagliavini might have been as good or better about 1948 and so, too, might Tito Schipa have been around 1930 and maybe even Alessandro Bonci in, say 1910. But, of course, Tagliavini, Schipa and Bonci are not available in their best voices on (more or less) complete recordings of "L'elisir" while Bergonzi is--right here! He is as good as we're ever likely to hear in this lifetime.

Renata Scotto sings very well here. Her many fans may rest assured that Scotto does everything that they might wish from her and does it very impressively, too. I am not one of her fans and the fault is probably much more mine than hers. To me, she is like one of T. S. Elliot's mermaids. I hear them singing each to each but I do not think they will sing to me.

The third big name in the cast is Giuseppe Taddei. The Italians like to say they gave Gobbi to the world but kept Taddei for themselves. He did, in fact, sing outside Italy. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera at the age of 67. On this recording, the 51 year-old baritone offers a good, solid performance as Sergeant Belcore. I have no criticism of him in the role of Belcore except that he should not be singing it. Taddei was an excellent Leporello and a tremendous Falstaff. If I had been the producer of the May Festival I would have moved heaven and earth to have him sing Doctor Dulcamara. Any good baritone can be Belcore. Taddei would have been fabulous as the quack doctor and perhaps only Salvatore Baccaloni at his prime might have been better. I can only guess that Taddei took Belcore because he did not wish to be typecast in the buffo parts.

Carlo Cava was a reliable singer of lower-voiced parts. His recording career, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, was pretty much confined to short supporting parts. I'd not be at all surprised if this Dulcamara is his most significant appearance on disk. Cava is all right as the snake oil-peddling quack. He's looser than some in the role, but still generally staid in a part that practically cries out for a larger-than-life buffo baritone who delights in chewing the scenery and anything else that comes to hand.

Gianetta is a relatively small part which, nevertheless, offers some nice bits. Renza Jotti is an admirable Gianetta.

Gavazzeni conducts a fairly rapid-moving, Italianate performance in which everything keeps moving forward, unlike, say, Richard Bonynge who distorts the overall shape of the opera for the benefit of his singers. The orchestra and chorus are fine.

This is a good performance with a blazing tenor in a barebones package, all at low price. I think it's worth five stars.


Scratch the Surface (Cat Lover's Mysteries)
Scratch the Surface (Cat Lover's Mysteries)
by Susan Conant
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dog Lady switches into the dangerous lane, 14 Sept. 2010
Susan Conant is the author of a successful series of mystery novels featuring a pair of malamute dogs who are usually more memorable than any of her human characters. To paraphrase a statement that appears in this book, Conant is a leading figure in dog-writing circles. In this book, "Scratch the Surface," she has done a brave/foolish thing. She has changed course: the dog writer has gone to the cats.

Actually, she has done even more than that. She has shifted just about as far as she can go with this book while still remaining within the circle of cozy mysteries.

In the dog books, Conant's first-person protagonist is Holly Winter, a writer of doggie articles for obscure doggie publications. She just loves her dogs to pieces and they love her back and she pities all the poor devils on the planet who don't place dogs at the pinnacle of creation. Holly is sweet, intrepid, plucky, lucky, quirky and blessed with friends who are collectively sweet, intrepid, lucky, plucky and quirky. Holly, in short, is just about perfect as the hero of a popular cozy mystery series.

Felicity--derived from the Latin felix (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)--Pride, the new protagonist, has her adventure(s) related in the third person. Felicity is not especially sweet, intrepid, plucky or lucky. Her most noticeable quirk is just plain peculiar (see below) and her one discernable friend is dismissed by her as dull, dull, dull. Felicity is a mid-list author of cat-centered mysteries. She makes a living at it, but she envies her more popular rivals and walks in ongoing fear that her fans might discover that she not only does not own a cat at present but never did. The Cat Lady, in short, knows nothing about cats.

She does, however, know quite a bit about writing commercial mysteries. Here is Felicity on the rigid conventions of cozy mystery novels:

She had "a great fondness for emotional magnetism between female amateur sleuths and male homicide detectives. When the attraction became outright romance, the relationship often fell victim to author-imposed impediments cruelly placed between the would-be lovers to prolong tension from book to book, thus smoothing a series potentially chopped up by discrete murders. In some cases, the author found it useful to unite the duo in a consummated affair or in marriage thus allowing the amateur gumshoe ready access to information otherwise known only to the police; it was far easier to write a little pillow talk than it was to invent complex subterfuges whereby the amateur protagonist discovered the results of a postmortem.... Ah, love! What a splendid literary convenience!" [Page 116-7 of the paperback edition]

Felicity on her audience. Having become an amateur sleuth (see above), Felicity is--of course!--attracted to the detective in charge of a murder case (see above). Over dinner, they discuss the reading habits of the dead man. In true canonical fashion, the amateur had found, entered, cased and otherwise prowled through the poor man's home long before anyone from the police arrived.

Felicity remarks, "`While I was looking for Brigitte [the victim's cat], I noticed that there were a lot of cat mysteries, including mine.'

`A few of yours. Others, too. What do you make of that?'

`Not much. Lots of people love mysteries..... Professor Coates [the victim] was entitled to a little relief, wasn't he?'

`The choice is kind of, uh, feminine.'

`Men read mysteries, too!'

`Cat mysteries?'

`Some men do.'" [Page 120-21]

And, of course, as the central personage in a mystery book, Felicity has her quirk. Holmes had his violin and needle. Bond drank his stirred-not-shaken hooch and walked down the mean streets of exotic locales while seriously under-gunned with his Beretta. Felicity is just plain weird: she drinks flat ginger ale with all the bubbles stirred out. Ugh! (And so do her guests! Double ugh!!)

Felicity is self-serving and opportunistic. She says catty things about her fictional rivals and is not entirely adoring about some real writers. She displays only limited, to say the least, emotional attachment to her readers. I think it would be a hoot to meet Felicity--in non-literary circumstances, of course. In the real world, I would avoid Holly and her big, annoying, clumsy dogs like the plague.

[Note to Ms. Conant: If you actually are Holly Winter in the flesh, sorry about that. If you are Felicity Pride, you go, girl!]

As I said, Conant has done a brave/foolish thing. She has not dumped Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls but she's come close. She is a series writer with an established name. And there is nothing more on earth that the fans of a series want than more of the same--much, much more of exactly, precisely the same! If you doubt that, just read the reviews on Amazon US. I'd be willing to bet that had "Scratch the Surface" been published by a new and unknown writer named, say, Connie Suzanne, it would have been welcomed as a promising new work with four or five four-and-five-star reviews. It certainly would not have received any of those one-star slams.

I am giving "Scratch the Surface" five stars as a promising work from an established writer and in partial balance for those mean-spirited one-star hits. (Well, actually I think it's a four-star book, or perhaps four+, because Conant really should have polished up her prose. That first example I quoted is effective enough but its language is clunky. The second is intended as a joke, but both set-up and punchline could and should be sharpened. I'm fine, however, with the flat ginger ale--now, THAT is a quirk!)


Dirty Laundry: A Sofie Metropolis Novel (Sofie Metropolis Novels)
Dirty Laundry: A Sofie Metropolis Novel (Sofie Metropolis Novels)
by Tori Carrington
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars S. Plum Lighter, 14 Sept. 2010
It appears that a new category, indeed, three new categories have been added to the circle of cozy mysteries in addition to such dear old favorites as the English country village, the English country house, the plucky widow/divorcee soldiering on, the plucky widow/divorcee soldiering on with kids, the wannabe reporter, the intrepid small businesswoman, the gourmet cook/caterer (recipes included), the cat-centered mystery, the dog-centered mystery, the ... well, you know the rest. The new categories are, of course,
1. - Stephanie Plum Light,
2. - Stephanie Plum Lighter, and
3. - Stephanie Plum Lightest.

All things considered, I believe this series about a Greek-American PI should be rated as Stephanie Plum Lighter. Naturally, if PI Metropolis' personal automobiles acquire the habit of blowing up in book after book, that rating would promptly be upgraded to Stephanie Plum Light.

Those who have read the Amazon US reviews for the first book of the series, "Sofie Metropolis," may remember that helpful readers provided lists of similarities between that book (and as we now see the series as a whole) and the Plum Saga. I shall now endeavor to list the difference between the Metropolis books and the Plum Saga:

1. - Sofie Metropolis' name is not Stephanie Plum.

The Metropolis books are hardly original but they are not bad. They are lightly amusing and an easy read (a widely-used a term that I normally regard as the kiss of death, but not necessarily so in this case.) They will serve as an adequate stopgap for readers badly Jonesing for a Plum-fix before the next authentic tale of Stephanie's misadventures appears.

A TRIFLING QUESTION:
When Ms. Metropolis' elders use her true name, they call her "Sofia." Shouldn't that be "Sophia"?


Bellini: La Sonnambula
Bellini: La Sonnambula
Offered by BookFozz
Price: £38.91

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best Callas "Sonnambula", 14 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Bellini: La Sonnambula (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Live performance from La Scala in Milan, March 5, 1955.

SOUND:
Weak, inadequate, antiquated, muffled, limited and frustrating. I am reminded of the output of the first generation of pocket-sized transistor radios that were such a craze when I was in junior high school--the ones that made the Bakelite-cased, table model AM radios at home sound so resonantly mellifluous. Audiophiles who suffer the vapors on hearing digital recordings made with last week's equipment, walk away right now. This is not for you. The only reason for listening to this recording is the performance. Live with its technical inadequacies.

CAST:
Amina - Maria Callas (soprano)
Elvino - Cesare Valletti (tenor)
Teresa - Gabriella Carurani (mezzo-soprano)
Il Conte Rodolfo - Giuseppe Modesti (bass)
Lisa - Eugenia Ratti (soprano)
Alessio - Pierluigi Latinucci (bass)
Un Notario - Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)

CONDUCTOR:
Leonard Bernstein with the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milano.

TEXT:
The standard cuts that were traditional for a century or more are observed.

DOCUMENTATION:
No libretto. Brief history of the opera and a short summary of the plot. Nothing on the cast or the circumstances of the recording. Track list identifies main singers but omits timings.

COMMENTARY:
In 1955 La Scala presented "Sonnambula" in an expensive new production overseen by Luchino Visconti, who served as producer, director and all-around prop for Maria Callas. It marked the second occasion in which Callas and Leonard Bernstein worked together in an opera house. Callas was still at her peak, but not long before, a bobbled high note during a performance of "Andrea Chenier" had occasioned an outburst of boos and whistles, something that Maria Callas would remember far more clearly than the cheers she had also earned that night. Callas believed that the sharks were beginning to circle--and she was probably right. Not long after that, Callas, being Callas, had managed to get into an unseemly tussle with Boris Christoff over bows in a "Medea." And the feud with Renata Tebaldi had come to a nice, sour boil.

By the time Callas arrived in Milan, she was in a state. Her doctor ordered complete rest. The opening of "La Sonnambula" was postponed for two weeks. Bernstein was not entirely unhappy at the delay, for it allowed him to get in an almost unprecedented eighteen orchestral rehearsals for an opera that La Scala habitually performed after only a single run-through.

At the time, Callas seems to have been going through an infatuation with Visconti. When she finally turned up at rehearsals, she was unusually pliant before his direction. However, so the story goes, one Visconti-ism proved too much for her. Although the opera is set in a humble Tyrolean village, the director insisted that Callas wear her best personal jewelry during all rehearsals. "But Luchino," she is supposed to have said, "I'm only a village girl." "No," Visconti replied, "you are MARIA CALLAS playing a village girl, and don't you forget it!"

Callas sings extremely well here, lightening her voice to portray the simple village girl, Amina (pace Luchino), but nevertheless in full La Divina mode with wonderful high notes and breathtaking vocal decorations. For Callas fans, that fully justifies a five-star rating for this set.

This is one of the relatively few Callas live recordings that can also boast of a first-class tenor and conductor. Cesare Valletti was a true, indeed a classic tenore di grazia. He was Tito Schipa's student and in some ways he surpassed that charming old musical con man. Because of him, the glorious Amina-Elvino duets are first-rate. (Such was not the case in Callas' studio recording and her second live recording, both made with the utterly useless Nicola Monti.)

Bernstein was at his most Bernsteinly. He put his well-rehearsed orchestra through their paces and injected drama, fire and electricity into the music. (Perhaps more drama, fire and electricity than sweetly melodious Bellini ever intended--but that's another subject.)

The rest of the cast is pretty good, also unusual for a live Callas recording. Eugenia Ratti is a little too hard-edged for my taste but she is effective as the hard-edged Lisa. Giuseppe Modesti is fine as Count Rodolfo. The only fault I can find with him is that he is not Cesare Siepi.

Callas at her best, a good supporting cast and a top conductor, all of these demand and deserve five stars.

BUT--
This is not at all the best performance of "La Sonnambula" available. In 1952 CETRA issued a recording with Lina Pagliughi and Ferruccio Tagliavini which is currently available in various editions. Pagliughi was good, even though she was never the vocal technician that Callas was. Nevertheless, she was a better Amina, singing in the old melodic way. Excellent as Valletti was, Tagliavini was even better. Overall, I think the Pagliughi-Tagliavini performance is the one Bellini would have said most closely matched his intentions.


P.D.Q. Bach - the Abduction of Figaro [1984] [DVD]
P.D.Q. Bach - the Abduction of Figaro [1984] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Marilyn Brustadt
Price: £24.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A dissenting view, 14 Sept. 2010
Previous reviews om Amazon US are uniform in praising this piece as a spoof. Yes, it is a spoof and a very good one. No more of that. I am going to take another tack. I say it is an opera and a pretty good one, too, whatever its roots and original intentions. It works, and works well as a music drama--or rather comedy in this case.

Peter Schickele, channeling the last and least of the Bachs, has concocted an effective singspiel/opera buffa, probably the only one in the Twentieth Century that Wolfie Mozart, Larry Da Ponte and Manny Schickaneder would have applauded. Da Ponte, true to form, would have tried to seduce one or all of the leading ladies. Schickaneder would have rushed home to stage a pirate version at his own theater in order to swindle Schickele/Bach out of the profits.

Regional opera companies and opera workshops ought to be producing "The AbFig" on a regular basis. And major companies might do worse.

Come to think of it, they have!


I Pagliacci
I Pagliacci

5.0 out of 5 stars Richard Tucker stirs up the 1971 May Festival, 14 Sept. 2010
This review is from: I Pagliacci (Audio CD)
SOURCE:
Live performance from the Florence May Festival, May 1971.

SOUND:
My guess is that this is a recorded broadcast, since the voices and orchestra are in even balance while the audience is fairly distant. The mono sound is hardly up to digital studio standards, but good enough to afford pleasure to anyone willing to listen sympathetically.

CAST:
Canio, the chief player of a ragtag touring company - Richard Tucker (dramatic tenor)
Nedda, the leading lady and a wife who strongly feels the urge to soar away - Mietta Sighele (soprano)Tonio, a professional buffoon with a dark and cynical heart - Kari Nurmela (baritone)
Beppe, the light-hearted harlequin who actually exhibits some common sense - Ermanno Lorenzi (lyric tenor)
Sylvio, the local lover boy making time with Nedda - Walter Alberti (baritone)
Due Contadini, two honored ticket buyers/two local yokels - Ottavio Taddei and Mario Frosini

CONDUCTOR:
Ricardo Muti with the Florence May Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

COMMENTARY:
"Pagliacci" was the second big hit of the verismo style and confirmed that the earlier "Cavalleria Rusticana" had not been just a fluke. "Pagliacci" was, in fact, such a hit that it was not long before its creator, librettist/composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, was hauled into court to defend himself against a charge of plagiary. At the trial, Leoncavallo swore that he had not stolen anything. His story was based on boyhood memories of a case that had actually appeared in the court of his father, a judge. The case was decided in his favor.

"Pagliacci" is one of the core works of the standard operatic repertory and surely one of the most often performed. As "Pagliacci" is only about 75 minutes long, it is commonly yoked together in performance with "Cavalleria Rusticana" as "Cav and Pag," a combination that is only half-jokingly known as "the unholy twins." It is widely regarded (although not by me) as the better of the two.

This is a pretty good live performance under the baton of the young Muti, then still a conductor who held out hopes of unlimited potential. "Pagliacci" is not really a conductor's opera. The score explicitly lays out what the opera is about -- overblown, dangerous passion among ordinary people -- and specifies how to achieve the intended effects. Subtle, it isn't. In this performance I can't hear the things that so often make recordings by the more mature Muti such a quirky experience.

The players in Canio's commedia dell'arte company are consistently strong. Sighele as Nedda had a fuller voice than might have been anticipated. She had the potential for a bigger career than she seems actually to have had. Nurmela as Tonio is good, too, although he hangs right out there on the raggedest of edges for the high note in "Si puo? Si puo?" Lorenzi and Alberti as Beppe and Silvio do what must be done for their parts in a satisfactory manner.

All that is beside the point. The reason, the only reason to purchase this set, is to hear Richard Tucker in live performance. Let me be clear on this point: I am a stone Tucker fan (as I am of Gigli, Tagliavini, Schipa, Caniglia, Pagliughi, Flagstad ....) and so were the members of the May Festival audience. I hear Tucker and I find all kinds of faults: pronunciation, attack, vocal production, occasionally pitch -- you name it. None of that makes any difference. When Tucker winds up for the big ones, he always hits them out of the park. Wow! Listen to the audience at the end of "Vesti la giuba." When Tucker finishes singing, the less sophisticated parts of the audience offer loud cheers, but too early. They cover the longish orchestral passage that ends the first act. When the music comes to a proper close, the knowing part of the audience explodes into an even larger ovation. That's what happens when a true star is on stage!

Four stars for a generally good, live, mono performance from the 1970s, but five stars for Tucker being Tucker.


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