Monday, January 07, 2013

The Met's Chorus Master

Dennis Ryan wrote:

"One true miracle of the modern-day Metropolitan Opera is the miracle
Donald Palumbo has wrought, apparently single-handed, upon the Met's
chorus. Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone who attended many
Lyric Opera of Chicago performances in the early 2000's, where he wrought a
very similar miracle to the amazement of all."

I agree that under Palumbo, the Met chorus has become an ensemble equal in
quality to the Met orchestra. Not that the chorus was bad under David
Stivender; quite the contrary, it was very good. But Stivender's chorus
never had the blend and impact of Palumbo's chorus; voices would stick out,
particularly in the sopranos and tenors, and one hears this frequently on
Met broadcasts from the '80s and '90s.

I sang in the Dallas Opera chorus in 1981 when Donald Palumbo was just
starting out as an assistant chorus master, working under the great,
legendary Roberto Benaglio, Dallas Opera's chorus master at that time.
Palumbo prepared the chorus before Benaglio arrived and then assisted with
cues, etc. during performances. Benaglio had been chorus master at La Scala
for many years and was chorus master of choice in Italian opera for
conductors like Karajan and Giulini (you can see his name on many recordings
from the 1960s and '70s. He was quite a character. (There was rarely
unqualified praise from Benaglio. The best one got was, "goot, ma..."
("good, but...") There was always the "ma!" And, "NO, coro di Dallas, NO!
No sound Texano! sound...Titta Ruffo!!"

When I listen to Palumbo's chorus, I hear the same kind of sound that
Benaglio got from his choruses: blended, solid, balanced and precise, with
great dramatic impact. Benaglio was constantly exhorting the chorus,
"coverli! coverli" (his fractured English for making a "covered" sound). He
also would shout, "caRACtair! caRACtair!" ("character"), wanting the chorus
to be fully in character and conveying the drama through the sound. Singing
"coverli" with "caRACtair" was a fanatical obsession with Benaglio And it
is a Benaglio "coverli" sound with "caRACtair" that I hear from the Met
chorus these days. Higher praise there is not.

Incidentally, another superb opera chorus master these days is Richard Bado
at the Houston Grand Opera. His chorus' work is invariably excellent at HGO
and is always a high point in any performance they participate in, however
much dreck or mediocrity may surround them (as, alas, there frequently is at
HGO). Bado is relatively young, and I would not be a bit surprised to see
him at the Met years down the road, whenever Palumbo moves on (long may that
day be delayed!).


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