If someone actually paid me to write in this blog, I would say that the text I am about to write was written for the money. On writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore, everybody quotes Caruso’s famous line that says that all you need are the four greatest singers in the world. And I won’t make an exception – I have just quoted it! – and that is why I feel it is somehow unfair to say that this tenor or that soprano had their share of shortcomings in a work in which almost everybody – even the greatest ones – has their shares of shortcomings. But I thought that Cavalier is such a faithful reader and that he would like to read it – so here it goes. This evening, the Deutsche Oper offered the first of two concerts featuring Verdi’s rawest and earthiest opera. Although the score is often laughed at as simplistic (“big guitar” is the expression often used), it is quite puzzling how the results are rarely effective live. It is raw music, with violent percussive use of the orchestra, vertiginous rhythms and exciting ensembles with glittering effects, especially in the violins. The use of the word “glittering” is not accidental – you just need to listen to the last scene in act I in Karajan’s eccentric 1977 studio recording to see how the Berliner Philharmonic is at its brightest-sounding, its violins gleaming upfront along with singers, exactly as La Scala’s orchestra had in Karajan’s 1956 mono recording with Maria Callas. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is, of course, typically German in sound and is always at its best in Wagner. But under the right guidance, these musicians can get into cisalpine mood with the extra richness and roundness reserved for key moments. Not this evening, I am afraid. Although young conductor Andrea Battistoni is indeed Italian, he certainly did not inspire his musicians to make the southbound “spiritual” journey. I have to confess that I have never heard this orchestra so colorless in sound as this evening. The maestro jumped, gesticulated, moved about his arms and I could see no difference in animation, dynamic or intensity as a result. The powerful climaxes sounded just loud, the fast tempi mechanical, the frisson left to imagination. Battistoni is keen on keeping things a tempo – which is probably the right choice for this music – but if you are not breathing with your singers, the effect is just straight-laced and spasmodic. The chorus had sometimes problem with following his beat in tricky passages (the stretta of the opening bass aria, for example) and his soloists often had a could-you-please-give-me-some-time? expression on their faces. It had been a while since I last saw a conductor booed at the Bismarckstraße (differently from directors, who are almost always booed there), but this evening those were not isolated manifestations of displeasure.
This evening’s selling feature was probably Anja Harteros’s Leonora. Like everybody who has ears, I am an admirer of this German soprano – especially when she is singing German repertoire. The fact that hers is not an Italianate voice could be called secondary in a role where one is just happy to find someone who can actually do this music justice. Would you call Leontyne Price’s tonal quality Italianate, for example? If I had to say “yes” or “no”, I would say that Harteros was a successful Leonora – her voice is big, warm and homogeneous, she can trill, phrases with utmost sensitivity and good taste, has listened to her Callas CDs and did not seem desperate with what she has to do. But still the style doesn’t come very naturally to her. Her interpretation is often too “intellectual” in approach (as opposed to “emotional”), her “Italianate” effects sound a bit calculated and she doesn’t do low register Italian way. Moreover, I would say she was not at her best this evening: she worked hard for mezza voce and was sometimes a bit flat. Writing all this is a bit embarrassing – she was probably better than any other Leonora one would find in big opera houses today, but still a singer of her caliber should always be compared with the very best. And I mean it as a sign of respect. If I have to keep a souvenir of her performance this evening, this would be her direct, touching, heartfelt Miserere – her Mozartian background used to the best effect in purity of line and sincerity of expression.
Stephanie Blythe had been originally announced as this evening’s Azucena, but was later replaced by Dolora Zajick. It was very heartwarming to see how Harteros made a point on showing deference to this almost legendary Verdian mezzo-soprano (and how gracefully Zajick received it and made a point of acting likewise). If you think of how long she has been singing these impossibly difficult Verdi roles in some of the world’s leading opera houses, one must acknowledge her abilities. At this point of her career, her voice is “merely” very, very big (compared as to how gigantic it used to be, say, 10 years ago), her middle-register has recessed a bit and become sometimes rather nasal and her vowels are now and then unclear. But, whenever things become really testing, she is still admirable – she tries every trill, never recoils from singing piano, ventured into her optional high note in the act II duet with Manrico, you name it. I had seen her sing this role at the Met in a day in which she was not truly in the mood, but this evening – without costumes and scenery – she simply lived through Azucena’s predicaments, the character’s conflicts all clearly presented. And, God, her “sei vendicata, o Madre!” was dramatically, vocally, spiritually (choose an adverb and fill in the blanks here) thrilling. She alone brought the edge to a blunt performance of an opera that is about edge.
I had seen Stuart Neill before only once ages ago in a Verdi Requiem with Denyce Graves in Rio (don’t ask me when was that – I have no idea). My distant memory of the event tells me of a voice big enough and right in style in a not really musically elegant singer. This evening, in the context of his competition, I would say that – in a concert version where his bulk is not a hindrance – he is fairly viable choice for the role. His voice was built around an Italian sound, his pronunciation is extremely convincing, he sounds believably “rustic” and even has functional mezza voce. It is also true that his phrasing is a bit emphatic and not very keen on legato and his notes too often crudely finished off. Ah, sì, ben mio was not graceful or heartfelt, but Di quella pira – highly adapted, as it often is, to the necessities of the final acuto – put across its “message” (in the sense that it sounded all-right heroic and athletic rather than desperate and arthritic). If I had to be really honest, I found Dalibor Jenis’s Count di Luna the all-round most reliable performance this evening. When I saw him in Un Ballo in Maschera, I couldn’t see all the qualities he displayed this evening – a forceful, dark voice with the right touch of harshness, but also supple enough for a sensitively sung Il balen. Finally, Marko Mimika was a decent Ferrando who could do with a tiny little bit less wooliness.