Do You Hear What I Hear?

To those who still believe in the magic of the season:
the Merriest of Christmas.


Pensée de la Semaine

Oscar Wilde: “Hate blinds people.
Love can read the writing on the remotest star.”


"Pasquale" Telegram



Final Masterpiece

One of the last dresses that YSL designed in 2002, the year of his retirement. In the show, it was worn by the Russian model Eugenia Volodina, as seen above. It is made of silk chiffon, in a shade of blue so beguilingly lovely that Giotto himself would have been mesmerized. As the photo shows, the dress is strapless, draped and caught at the side with a perky bow in silk organza. Masterful. Sublime. Saint Laurent.


Beauty Diva

Irene Esser, 21, Venezuela’s representative in the forthcoming Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas, being interviewed by a Spanish talk show a few weeks ago. Words are inadequate to accurately describe the beauty of this jaw-dropper. If she doesn’t win, there’s something seriously corrupt with the Miss Universe organization. If she does win, she would grabbed the headlines, the likes of which would make someone like the future queen of England green with envy, precisely because Ms. Esser would make her look like a royal nanny.


Runway Diva

Anna Bayle, fashion’s self-proclaimed First Asian Supermodel, was, in her glory days throughout the 1980s, one of high fashion’s most sought-after faces. She walked like no one else, whether on the runways of Paris, Milan, Rome, London, and New York. The 5’ 10”, Manila-born Ms. Bayle modeled for every major designer in the world: Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Valentino, Thierry Mugler, Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Versace, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Mizrahi, et. al. And it was all because of her signature walk; a walk (above, it begins at :40.) that one New York Times critic described as though “she were crushing a cigarette butt with each step down the runway.” Ms. Bayle has long since retired, but through online videos of her triumphant years on the fashion stage, her exotic beauty and grace, but above all her inimitable walk, continue to inspire.


YSL: Pure Genius

Yves Saint Laurent haute couture, autumn/winter 1984. Violetta Sanchez, shot by Helmut Newton for French Harper’s Bazaar.


Divine Sarah

Sarah Vaughan. Unforgettable.


Ella Enchanted

The First Lady of Song. Pure Ella. Pure enchantment.


High Priestess of Soul

The Divine Ms. Nina Simone. The way she ends this song sent shivers down every erogenous zone of my body. One of the greatest frissons of my entire musical experience. Devastating.


A Thorougly-Modern Mess Redeemed By Love

Just a quick review of Werther, unveiled Sunday afternoon at LOoC. The production’s director, Francisco Negrin, must truly hate Massenet so deeply for him to have conceived such a pointless, heartless Werther. The spare, modernist sets, designed by Louis Désiré, did nothing to alleviate Negrin’s gloomy, preposterous staging. Thankfully, the singers were in top form. While tenor Matthew Polenzani, as the love-lorn Werther, did not quite steal the show as a truly great Werther must, he nevertheless sang the role with conviction that seemed to pour effortlessly out of him without resorting to clichéd gestures. He may not have compelled the audience to follow his lead by contemplating suicide in the name of unrequited love, but he gave a performance that was genuine and believable, vocally and physically; one never forgot, in listening to Polenzani, that Werther is a poet.

It was Werther’s beloved Charlotte, however, who made an indelible impression. Mezzo Sophie Koch’s voice is tailor-made for this role, like a Chanel jacket on Anna Wintour; it has the gleam of gossamer silk so finely spun that it seems ethereal. One could almost see the twinkle in her eyes when Werther declared his undying love. Her gestures alone, contained, graceful, suggested what her heart wanted to say, to Werther, to Albert, to me. Unbelievable to think that this performance was her first-ever foray onto the American operatic stage. Baritone Craig Verm was Albert as he should be portrayed: sensitive, alert to Charlotte’s feelings towards him, or lack thereof; a thoughtful portrayal of a thankless role. Soprano Kiri Deonarine as sister Sophie was charmingly naïve; Massenet would have been entranced. The orchestra, led by Andrew Davis, was often splendid, evoking the romance and beauty of Massenet's tear-jerker of a score that had the sweeping effect of a film score reminiscent of Max Steiner at his most feverish.




The Past is Prologue

Verdi’s so-called “symphonic opera,” Simon Boccanegra, opened Monday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Boccanegra is hardly a staple in the repertory, but when it is performed—and given justice—one is struck at how familiar the opera seems, as reassuring as one’s own grandfather. I feel like I’ve been acquainted with it somehow, when in reality Monday’s prima was my first live exposure to this astonishing gem beyond the unsurpassable Abbado recording. Verdi, ever the master at tugging our heartstrings, compromised not a single note in bringing to life Boccanegra’s universal story, going so far as to revise his work some twenty-four years after its 1857 Venice premiere, transforming it at once into a very human drama that goes straight to all our hearts.
Baritone Thomas Hampson sang the title role. Amelia/Maria was soprano Krassimira Stoyanova. Tenor Frank Lopardo was Gabriele. Fiesco was bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Baritone Quinn Kelsey was Paolo. All five principals offered riveting performances that were slightly marred by opening night imperfections, for which the evening’s conductor must take the blame. Under Andrew Davis’ baton, Verdi’s gorgeous score seemed bereft of eloquence that this music so desperately requires. Certain key moments in the drama such as the moving climax of the “recognition scene” between father and daughter went by without fanfare. Davis is not a Verdi conductor. The meat of this opera is, of course, the Council Chamber scene. Boccanegra without it is akin to Onegin without the Letter Scene. When everyone on stage (and pit) conspire to set this scene on fire, the effect is extraordinary, unlike anything in Verdi. Monday night’s rendition of this volcanic episode came close to setting the Lyric stage aflame. Stoyanova’s piercing cries of “pace” helped to ignite it, but was put out by the conductor’s unimaginative wand.
The Bulgarian soprano, who is making her Lyric début, sang her first and only aria, “Come in quest'ora bruna,” with mellifluous grace that recalled Mirella Freni’s golden-voiced Amelia, except that Stoyanova’s is more lachrymose in timbre than honeyed à la the beautiful Mirella. What was missing in Stoyanova’s voice is a Gheorghiu-style urgency; that, and some old-school diva abandon à la Millo, from whom she can take a masterclass. Hampson’s Boccanegra—vocally—is not one for the ages. There are no incidental joys to be had in listening to him. As there are no opportunities to bask in the warmth and beauty of the baritone voice, for his has none whatsoever; if it can be likened to an ice-cream flavor, it would have to be vanilla. But, as an artist, he says more about his character’s life story through his impeccable musicianship than could any Boccanegra with the voice of God. Looking pale and gaunt in his death scene, he was Boccanegra. Other cast members weren’t so convincing. Lopardo’s heroic Gabriele vocalized unabashedly, as though he were singing Lohengrin, cracking a note or two in the course of his duet with his betrothed. His voice is as unreliable as a weather forecast; in fact, it seemed to hover in the air like a traveling cloud that gave no hint whether it might rain or not. Kelsey was a domineering Paolo, in voice but more so in demeanor. Vocal honors must go to the Fiesco of Furlanetto. With a voice that could plunge the deepest ocean depths, he dominated the stage with his voice alone. After last season’s victorious Godunov, the Lyric stage is artistically richer with him on it. The rest of the cast were in fine form throughout a long evening of heavy, testosterone-fueled vocal matches.
The production, borrowed from Covent Garden, was directed by Elijah Moshinsky, with not a whiff of modernism about it. (After a disturbing David McVicar staging of Elektra now playing at Lyric, so much for the better!) The sets are handsome enough to be visually satisfying: imposing ivory pillars stood proudly like Genoese skyscrapers, while the Council Chamber interior resembled a D.C. memorial park. (See photo above, by Dan Rest.) The lighting by Jason Brown was evocative of the paintings of Georges de Latour; the stage looked as if it were lit by candlelight. The Peter J. Hall-designed costumes worn by the men were splendid: brocades and damasks in an autumnal palette of reds and oranges that seemed borrowed from Tintoretto. Amelia’s frock looked sedate in comparison to what her father wore, which could set any geisha an example in elegant carriage.


Remembrance of Yves Past

A Saint Laurent opening has always been a red-letter day in French high fashion. Hedi Slimane’s premiere Saint Laurent collection, shown last night, was no exception. It was the hottest ticket of the entire spring/summer 2013 season. The show will no doubt please YSL purists; but, as a fashion statement, it had nothing new to say. It was rather like a greatest hits parade of the beloved couturier’s most iconic collections, namely Saint Laurent’s eponymous “Ballets Russes” collection of 1976 and the Spanish gypsies of 1977, thrown in with see-through blouses culled from 1968 for shock value. (Slimane need not have bothered showing them, for they no longer have any shock value left. Monsieur Saint Laurent’s controversial and often plagiarized sheer blouses seemed shocking back in 1968 when he first showed them with Bermuda shorts, but for 2013 they look merely vulgar.)
The bulk of Slimane’s “Saint Laurent Paris” show—as he has chosen to call the brand, eradicating the elegant “Yves”—consisted of slim capri (if they can be called that) pants worn with a multitude of suede vests and jackets that, at first glance, remind one of Tom Ford’s mid-'90s shows for Gucci, when that designer found it useful to borrow ideas from Saint Laurent’s illustrious repertoire years before he became creative director of YSL. Slimane, a former Dior Homme designer based in L.A., has had no previous experience in womenswear. It showed. The whole collection had the look of a design student's graduation show, laboring to assert his style. Though Slimane emphasized Saint Laurent’s fascination with folkloric dressing, he ignored one major aspect of his vocabulary: color. Slimane’s somber palette was limited to black, brown, and beige. The evening ensembles reeked of nostalgia, and not the most flattering of aromas, either. Worn with floppy fedoras that have seen better days, the finale consisted of swirling capes and flowing dresses that evoked both Saint Laurent muse Talitha Getty and his passion for Moroccan garb. What's missing in Slimane’s rendition was Saint Laurent’s seemingly effortless mastery of draping. Slimane’s shapeless frocks appeared sloppy even on the most anoretically thin of models. Though this was a spring show, a dark, autumnal air seemed to permeate the Grand Palais where the show was held. Viewing the collection online, one can sense that the venue had no ambiance or mood to complement the clothes. The models had none of the womanly elegance that Saint Laurent mannequins such as Mounia and Kirat exemplified to perfection in the 1980s. 
Three designers have already tackled the demanding Saint Laurent mantle—Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz had a brief stint in 1999, followed by Ford in 2000, preceeded by Stefano Pilati in 2004, each of whom had a modicum of success that was hardly spectacular—only to be dismissed when their vision for the brand fizzled or failed to excite Saint Laurent aficionados. Slimane is the fourth designer to be given the job. Judging from the merits of this show, he has plenty of magic to perform if he intends to have the sacred house of Saint Laurent—essentially a twentieth-century establishment—prosper and flourish in the twenty-first.


Perfect Symmetry

Fashion is a vicious cycle. The clothes that came down the runways in New York, where the collections originated, and those that marched down the catwalks in Milan, destined to be worn next spring, seem light years away, now that the Paris collections are in full swing. The clothes that the French are currently offering fashion editors, buyers, and celebrities alike will, in about six months’ time, be a distant memory once the cycle begins again. Only a handful of these collections will remain etched in the minds of those who follow fashion as religiously as one might follow the presidential election on TV. I think it’s safe to say that Raf Simons’ début ready-to-wear défilé for Christian Dior is one of those rare collections that will have a lasting impact, one that would mature and perhaps even endure in the collective consciousness.
The Belgium-born Simons, Maison Dior’s newly-appointed creative director, replacing the disgraced John Galliano, sent out a 53-piece collection that seemed fresh and young, innovative yet unpretentious, unburdened by the weight of history as baffling as the frilly eighteenth-century and the anything-goes chic of the 1920s that Dior’s former designer advocated season after season. The clothes that Simons showed are quite simple: not deceptively but genuinely. They require no further inspection other than the knowledge that they are lovely to look at. A belted cocktail dress looked arrestingly modern as is, but the designer attached an overlay of pink organza shaped like a triangle, an obvious nod to Dior’s famous “A-line” silhouette that took the world by storm in 1955, a look that will certainly be reinterpreted in myriad ways in 2013. The perennial tuxedo jacket was given star billing in the show: hourglass-shaped blazers that did not scream YSL circa 1966 but, instead, recalled a leggy, tuxedo-clad Judy Garland in the finale of Summer Stock, belting out the feel-good ditty “Get Happy.” Eveningwear echoed the pared down attitude of the daytime pieces, which included a black long-sleeved jersey sweater paired with an ankle-grazing iridescent ballskirt printed with large 3D roses in pastel shades: a post-modern homage to Dior’s penchant for extravagant ballgowns. The opening ensemble—a slim tuxedo pantsuit—set the tone brilliantly, but it was the airy dresses that succinctly encapsulated the message Simons so elegantly imparts: freedom. A standout evening dress of sequined midnight-blue with a tent-like overlay of tulle was an outright tribute to Dior’s 1958 “Trapeze” collection designed by a child prodigy with the name of Yves Saint Laurent.  
No one was more miscast than Monsieur Dior in the role of fashion revolutionary; he looked more like a country bumpkin or, to be charitable, a middle-aged provincial doctor. But, as those in fashion only know too well, looks are deceiving. Simons, a forty-something straight man who resembles a Sorbonne professor, will have more opportunities to prove his worth at Dior. But, as he has shown in this highly promising collection, he is one of the chosen few who will point fashion in the right direction.


Ah, Give Me Paris in the Springtime

Paris Fashion Week 2013 (yes, for those who don't know, high fashion is always six months ahead) is being unveiled this very minute in the City of Light. This morning, two standout collections will have fashionista tongues wagging: Balmain and Balenciaga. The former, designed by Olivier Rousteing, left photo, seems to have been inspired by the oeuvre of Claude Montana: big, Joan Crawford shoulders with cropped hemlines worn with wide-legged 1940s-style trousers in bold, eye-catching prints. The painstaking detail of Rousteing's clothes almost raises the level of their craftmanship to couture. Nicolas Ghesquière's Balenciaga collection for spring/summer 2013 was all about tailoring, as it always is: edgy, cool, precise, modern. Ghesquière seems to have raided the stellar Balenciaga archives for inspiration and was overwhelmed by what he saw: marvel at his flirty black and white flamenco skirt, right photo, and cropped origami top in glacial white. Other noteworthy pieces in the show include graphic dresses emblazoned with barbed wire motifs; an off-white peacoat cut with the freedom that only a kimono sans obi can give; a post-modern take on the sports bra paired with tuxedo pants, which opened the show; a pristine white lace shirtjacket over what appears to be a tweed miniskirt borrowed from the closet of Mademoiselle Chanel. Ghesquière further elaborated on the Chanel reference by sending out a half-dozen skirtsuits in heavy flecks of black and white tweed that make one wonder if they are at all conducive to wear in ninety-degree climates. Both shows are triumphs of construction. It's interesting to see as to who will have the guts to wear them come spring.


Pensée du jour

"Time has reduced her to an essence: as a grape can become a raisin, roses an attar."
Truman Capote on Out of Africa author, Isak Dinesen.


Isak Dinesen:
"Love, with very young people, is a heartless business. We drink at that age from thirst, or to get drunk; it is only later in life that we occupy ourselves with the individuality of our wine. A young man in love is essentially enraptured by the forces within himself."

Damian Lewis!

Diana Vreeland:
"All Englishmen are born actors, and there are very few actors in the world today who aren't English."


The Belter

Look who's blogging again! After a four-month hiatus, a new post: Patti LuPone, circa 1980, as photographed by the iconic German photographer, Chris Von Wagenheim, as seen in US Vogue.


La Gheorghiu Enchants D.C.

My friend T., who worships cara Angela unconditionally and who could do no wrong in his calculation, files his report below of the unsinkable diva's D.C. recital début. If unabashed superlatives make you cringe, I urge you to stop reading now. Otherwise, read on!


Angela Gheorghiu, goddess among us mere mortals, gave a stunning recital Saturday night at Washington National Opera, her first at the house, to a spellbound audience voraciously hungry for heavy dollops of old-school diva glamour. Ms. Gheorghiu, not one to disappoint, certainly offered a banquet in terms of style, and how! Appearing regal in a ravishing iridescent taffeta gown draped at the waist à la Dior in a beguiling shade of apricot tinged with pale gold rather like the colors of Venice at twilight, Ms. Gheorghiu showed who's boss and commenced with her signature Handel opener, "Ombra mai fu," at a slightly brisk pace that she felt suited her best but of which the conductor, veteran Eugene Kohn, felt otherwise. No matter, the soprano refused to let a minor flaw, in this case something as insignificant as tempo, blemish her performance. Ms. Gheorghiu has more talent than she knows what to do with, and so proceeding confidently into Mozart's lovely "Giunse al fin momento...," she went from strength to strength that once again showcased her prodigious gifts. One of those gifts is her ability to spin long arching lines that never seem to end, as evinced in her ethereal reading of Massenet's "Vive amour," which was preceded by yet another glorious example of this innate gift in a knock-'em-dead rendition of Dvorak's classic weepie, "Song to the Moon," which concluded the first act. (In between these quartet of arias, the orchestra provided fillers in the form of overtures.) The overture from "Le Corsaire" was a most wonderful entr'acte played with Gallic style by the band, as if Berlioz's triumphant score were written specifically to herald the soprano's entrée deuxième. It very well may have been, for the soprano looked like a vision straight out of Singer Sargent: black sequins seem to have been invented with Ms. Gheorghiu in mind. Perhaps sensing that she had the audience at the palm of her hand and on her side, and not the conductor's, she gave an arrestingly beautiful "Adieu notre petite table," as well as a supremely confident "Pleurez mes yeux". Spontini's rarely-performed "O nume tutelar" and La Wally's often-performed tragic soliloquy ended the program proper with aplomb. Encores galore flowed like champagne, from the frothy "I Could Have Danced All Night" to the showstopper "Granada," all the way to the sentimental "All The Things You Are," which sparkled like the diva's sequined gold gown (her third of the evening, mind), and of which the audience awarded with plenty of love. A glittery night was had by all, no more so than the diva herself, at the not-so-glittery Washington National Opera.



Aida On A Winter's Night

Sondra Radvanovsky's Aida was unveiled Saturday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago amid Biblically-epic sets that were more Bollywood than Egypt. The entire production had the chaotic ambiance of a Cecil B. DeMille set, complete with dozens of extras in preposterous get-ups that screamed tacky Las Vegas instead of Cairo chic. I found the costumes for the principals lacking in style. An azure jersey column for Aida was lovely but unimaginatively designed. Remember Aprile Millo's Nile-green costume dangling with tribal beads from circa 1988? Now that was a frock fit for a love-sick Ethiopian princess. But never mind, the uninspired costuming is beside the point.

None of the vulgar pageantry that transpired on stage would have remotely annoyed me had Radvanovsky gave a searing or, at the very least, committed performance of this touchstone role. While the soprano showed considerable power over chorus and orchestra in the unforgiving Triumphal Scene, effortlessly riding the Tsunami-like wave of sound from stage and pit, I thought she gave a frustratingly lackluster Aida, so decidedly devoid of intimacy and pathos, particularly in moments that required intimacy and pathos. Her "Ritorna vincitor!" was bereft of any real hint of agitation or urgency. "O patria mia," though competently sung, was bland and lifeless. Her diction—lazy, slurred beyond recognition—did not help her either. Like a figure skater faced with the daunting task of mastering a quadruple flip at the Olympics, Radvanovsky attacked the dreaded high C with palpable trepidation; the effect was hardly earth-shattering—the pyramids were unharmed. Her showdown with the crude, underpowered Amneris of mezzo Jill Grove also proved disappointing. Vocally, the soprano was in top form, exhibiting impressive agility and power to burn, but dramatically it was not the nasty cat-fight, claws and all, between two bitter rivals. Both singers lacked the fierceness and nastiness required to set this scene on fire. So, naturally, her confrontation with the impassioned Amonasro of baritone Gordon Hawkins was also a let-down. When the time came for the gorgeous "O terra, addio"—ditto. On what should have been the most suitable time for this Aida to redeem herself by delivering a gut-wrenching, Millo-like farewell to life, the soprano once again succumbed to her customary "safe approach," inducing nary a single tear from my eyes. With the rise and fall of the vocal line written to evoke the soul leaving the body, the duet is one of Verdi's most heartfelt melodies, yet both Aida and Radames (a nasal-sounding Marcello Giordani) squandered the golden moment by refusing to give a part of themselves. Opening night nerves? Was the soprano battling a cold? The mere fact that it is January in Chicago? Or is it perhaps because Aida is simply too gigantic a role for this promising Verdian soprano to tackle this early on in her career?


A Pair of Fashion Victims

Dmitri and Renée, taking their bows at a "special recital" held Saturday night at Lyric, an event staged in honor of ex-manager William Mason. While both singers exhibited vocal élan and admirable musicianship in daring arias and riveting duets as disparate as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Massenet's Thais, which soprano and baritone either sang solo or in tandem, their appearances, however, were hard to fathom. Dressed in a black longsleeved top sprinkled with dusts of sequins that morphed into a ballerina's bouffant tulle skirt, Fleming looked like a middle-aged debutante positively giddy at the prospect of receiving her first kiss. Her paramour, meanwhile, had his own fashion statement to make, albeit one that should not have come out of the closet. Hvorostovsky may have been an imposing presence—I half-expected this playboy to grab Renée by the arms and ravish her body—but his swashbuckling costume of black Nehru-inspired silk shirt and skin-tight trousers was as flamboyantly outré as his vocal projection. I'm surprised that this Siberian Fabio did not consider donning a highwayman's cape to go with his Errol Flynn get-up.


The Art of British Restraint

I offer you this 1969 TV adaptation of Wilde's An Ideal Husband, starring two of my favourite English actor/actress from that long-ago time: the exquisite Margaret Leighton and the magnificent Jeremy Brett. Two thoroughly enchanting performances that are masterclasses in understated elegance and the inimitable art of British refinement and restraint. Enjoy!