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Posts Tagged ‘Marcello Giordani’

According to the Princess of Bouillon, this is how Adriana Lecouvreur’s voice is supposed to sound and, well, I must confess that this is probably the best description of Maria Guleghina’s big, ungainly and intense soprano. Before she could open her mouth in this run of performances of  the most “telefono bianco” of Italian operas, Guleghina has been blacklisted by many opera-goers who somehow are right to expect more vocal glamour in a role which was a sort of calling card for Renata Tebaldi. That said (and I know I’ll be thrown tomatoes at for saying this), this Ukranian soprano is an acquired taste I have ultimately learned to acquire. In an age of pasteurised expression, narcisism and cold professionalism in opera, it is refreshing to see someone who is really giving it all and who seems to be actually having fun and wishing that we have fun too.  Now that the tomatoes have been thrown, I can also say that I perfectly understand whoever feels discouraged by Guleghina’s singing – she is irritatingly uneven. In one moment, she is really close to the ideal just to spoil the whole thing, with sour, metallic and overvibrant singing. But once you realise that she is the sort of artist who gets so carried away by situations that it is impossible to maintain polish, you start to “get” her. There are singers who are just sloppy, but Guleghina is not that – she is a trouper and wants to do it all. She wants to offer you pianissimi worthy of Caballé, the intensity of a Scotto, the touching morbidezza of a Freni, the warmth and power of a Tebaldi, but all that at the same time and is unvariably caught short by the fact that the absolute soprano is a myth.

Back to Cilea. The mention of these illustrious Adrianas is not accidental – at moments you could almost guess that Guleghina has carefully studied what her forerunners have done in this role – Scotto and Freni are almost a 100% certainty. And the hardwork has paid off – her ability to produce a girly, vulnerable, touching sound in lyrical and conversational passages were a definite asset of this performance. Her strong speaking voice and viable declamation of italianized Racine (praiseworthy for someone born so far away from Italy) also carried her in the difficult closing of act III. However, both arias caught her short in flowing legato and command of low register. The results were rather tentative then. Not the final duet with Maurizio – a sour top note apart, it was sung with depths of feeling and sense of line.

Although Olga Borodina’s mezzo no longer counts with the firm powerful top notes that seemed to reserve a place in the dramatic repertoire for her, she still has everything else – her voice is at once generous, warm and formidable. As many other singers, she could not find any depth in her Principessa di Bouillon, but embraced the virago cliché with enthusiasm.

Before you ask me how Plácido Domingo was in this role in which he was first seen at the Met forty years ago, I deliberately chose to see Marcello Giordani instead. Everybody takes Giordani for granted, but – believe me – he will be sorely missed when he retires. At the moment, I believe that no-one tackles the lirico spinto repertoire as consistently and efficiently as he dones. And before you ask me what lies beyond mere efficiency, I answer you that Sicilians do not need to practice on passion, they have it on their blood. As expected, Giordani was an exemplary Maurizio – the voice is natural, the top notes are firm, his phrasing is elegant, his delivery of the Italian text is crispy and his approach is no-nonsense. In act III, when he offered his best singing, he shaded his voice with no hint of effort and proved that you may still do sobbing provided you know how to do it.

Last but not least, Roberto Frontali was a firm-toned, congenial Michonnet. Among the minor roles, Bernard Fitch should be singled out for his animation. The casting for the Comédie characters could have involved more focused voices – as it was, they could barely pierce through the orchestra. In that sense, conductor Marco Armiliato could not be accused of drowning his singers, but he could not do that without avoiding a muffled quality. Cilea’s coloristic orchestration sometimes sounded simply disjointed and atmosphere was sorely missing. This is not a score that has received the attention of great conductors, but I am sure that there are hidden jewels there to be found – you just have to sample James Levine’s CDs with Renata Scotto to hear that.

When it comes to the revival of the Met’s old production, I seriously don’t know what to say – I understand that this is an opera for which it cannot be considered justified to spend lots of money with, but one expects to see something more artistic in an opera house of this level of importance. I am not saying that this should be a richer production, but only that some creative mind had spent a bit of its time on it. As it is, if you have asked my cleaning lady to stage an opera in France a long time ago, the results would have been more or less the same. No offense to my cleaning lady, but I am sure that the guys who were responsible for the revival at the Met were far more richly paid than her. Even Mark Lamos’s stage direction was bureacratic and insistent on effects that ultimately did not work.

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Although I cannot call myself a Berliozian (but rather the opposite of that), I couldn’ t help checking the Boston Symphony Orchestra’ s concert with the first part of Berlioz’ s gigantic rarely performed opera Les Troyens. I have to say that my first positive experience with that work involved James Levine’ s DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in spite of the exotic (if impressive) cast and seeing that he would conduct the work again tonight was the decisive element to make me buy my ticket. As in his New York performance with Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos, Levine resisted the temptation of presenting too turgid a view of this pseudo-classic work.  On his hand, Les Troyens is a matter of Musikdrama, often shown in almost late-Romantic intensity – and that’ s all for the better.  In that sense, the BSO was the main feature of this concert. This orchestra’ s lush, full yet light sonorities never get in the way of soloists and chorus and also involve the necessary clarity that ensure that Berlioz’ s woodwind effects hit home as they should. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus also deserve compliments for their powerful yet disciplined contribution.

Levine has the habit of seating his orchestra in a rather exotic manner, which might be effective to balance the sound of violas with the remaining strings. However, I will never be convinced that having the soloists standing in the end of the orchestra right in front of the chorus is a reasonable idea. In the three times I could witness this arrangement, it has always been perverse to singers, who seem understandably nervous having to take pride of place in the sound picture when they are not in the front of the orchestra. Especially when you have lightweight soloists.

Taking the crucial role of Cassandra, Yvonne Naef displayed an exquisite middle-weight mezzo-soprano that makes me think of another Yvonne – Minton – although the Australian singer had a brighter edge to her sound. I am used to more incisive and intense portrayals of this role and I took some time to understand that it was not only a sensible but a sensitive idea for Naef to opt for a more feminine and vulnerable approach, since her creamy sensuous voice was a bit stretched by the more exposed top notes and tested by having to sing over a full chorus. That said, no ugly sound came out of her throat during the whole evening, not to mention that her diction is crystalline and her phrasing is musicianly and elegant.

Announced to be indisposed, Dwayne Croft still could produce a most praiseworthy performance. His dark baritone is supple enough for Berliozian phrasing and only the occasional bleached out mezza voce and also some coughing showed that this reliable singer was indeed ill. Curiously, it was Marcello Giordani who seemed not to be in his best shape. He was entirely grey-toned during the first act and regaining the brightness of his sound for the second act did not prevent the sensation of effort.

In the whole, Levine’s theatrical approach aided by the exquisite orchestral playing and the unconventional yet touching Cassandre of Yvonne Naef made me think I would gladly listen to the second part after a 20 min intermission (alas, this will be possibly only for those who – unlike me -  will be in Boston on May 4th), even if I have doubts about Giordani’ s Aeneas right when he has a lot to sing and most of all about Anne Sofie Von Otter’ s Dido, especially placed behind the orchestra. Last time I saw her, Levine was the conductor who chose to seat her like that in the Gasteig Concert Hall for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and I can tell you she had a bad time trying to be heard from the remote spot on stage reserved for her.

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The title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a tough piece of casting. It is clearly a part for a soprano lirico spinto, but its constant shifting into the lower end of the soprano range will always be a test for any lyric soprano. I must confess that my heart beats for only one Manon in the discography, Renata Tebaldi. Only she is able to keep loveliness and femininity down there. I acknowledge Maria Callas’s and Renata Scotto’s brilliantly crafted accounts of this role, but the sound alone of their voices does not play the trick for me. Manon is the kind of woman who can turn all heads in her direction the minute she walks in. If the singer’s tone lacks this inbuilt sexiness, she is just a clever girl pretending to be a beautiful one. And that is definitely not what is wanted here.

Karita Mattila, for example, has it – her warm velvety soprano is sensuousness itself. Her In quelle trine morbide knocked the audience out in its sexy daydreaminess, for instance. However, at least at this stage of her career, Mattila’s voice shies away both at the bottom and at the top of her range. Her low notes only pierce through if thrown in chest voice and her acuti lack tone and risk to go off track. She often disguises that with dramatic effects, but the frequentation of heavy roles is not doing any favour to her voice. In terms of characterization, her Manon has a rather modern approach – something of a Paris Hilton (prision scene included) without the inheritance. She performs the concept with skill, particularly in act II, when she is not afraid of going larger than life. Her closing scene, however, was very subdued and both soprano and conductor went for a more exhausted than desperate Sola, perduta, abandonata.

I was suspicious about Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux. This is a tenor formerly identified with bel canto roles tackling a rather heavy part, but I have to say his instincts were right. His bright tenor showed no discomfort with this writing and he sang stylishly and sensitively throughout. Dwayne Croft was a rich-toned Lescaut and Sean Panikkar displayed a healthy, likeable tenor in the small role of Edmondo.

James Levine is an exemplary Puccinian, building rich textured sonorities without drowning his singer in orchestral loudness – his subtle handling of the intermezzo was most refreshing.

The old production with Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes has aged rather well – I have to confess that Manon is one of those operas I prefer to see in a traditional staging – its minuets, wigs, deportations to the colonies etc do not go with cocktail parties, telephones and airplanes.

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Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has been chosen as the symbol of the Met’s 2007/2008 season. Natalie Dessay’s face is posted at every bus stop and subway station in Manhattan over the slogan “You’d be mad to miss it”. However, I would say that the whole production team may have exaggerated their focus on madness. Sure Lucia’s theme is the loosening of the title’s role mental health, but as shown in the Met there was madness written all over the place from note one – and that leaves very little space for development. As a result, the audience is perfectly used to Lucia’s drollness in the first act – the rest seems her just another extravagance.

In the Met’s old production, Lucia was first shown as the dictionary definition of the Romantic heroine – lovely, radiant, innocent. Her long scene with Enrico pictured her vulnerability, rather a prey of a dilemma because her brother was not portrayed as a gruesome psycopath but rather a passive-aggressive selfish but not entirely insensitive fellow. The wedding scene revealed a gigantic barely unbearable effort to “do the right thing” until we finally saw the shattering of the Romantic image into semi-grotesque in the mad scene. Although Elizabeth Futral was permanently struggling with her notes, her acting was able to convey all that. Although the production was far from brilliant, it allowed her to do all that. I do not know if Zimmerman’s direction allowed Natalie Dessay to do something of the kind. I have to confess I found her stage performance rather mannered, if skilled and neatly done. I would say more: I could only “get” Dessay’s Lucia from the musical point of view.

Although the French soprano’s high register has seen more focused days, her voice is still lovely and her descent to the lower reaches is now perfectly mastered. Her coloratura remains truly impressive and she can toss in alts whenever they are required. However, what makes her so admirable is her enormous musical imagination and endless tonal variety. Because of that, the wandering of Lucia’s mind were touchingly portrayed in the mad scene – a remarkable feat, especially in a big theatre. All that said, a singing-actress like her should know that bel canto requires tonal variety dictated by the weight of every word in Italian text, a lesson taught by Renata Scotto and observed by Patrizia Ciofi in her video of the French version of this opera. Dessay’s diction is too generalized for that.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani did not seem to be in his best days. His tenor was a bit bottled-up and his phrasing rather unflowing and prone to lachrimosity. In the closing scene, he produced all-right impressive high notes, but legato was still largely absent. He definitely could not dispel the memory of Giuseppe Filianoti’s expressive Edgardo, sung in dulcet voice.

Marius Kwiecien’s forceful bairtone was in healthy shape as Enrico, but his singing was rather one-dimensional. John Relyea offered a far more sensitive performance, but his bass can be somewhat colourless. Stephen Costello, on the other hand, displayed a dark-hued but light tenor that sounds really promising. Provided he is not tempted to sing big lyric roles too early, he will be someone we are going to hear about often.

James Levine proved that Donizetti’s music has plenty to offer in the hands of a great conductor. He provided rich sounds without drowning his singers, opted for sensitive tempi and offered amazing increase in tension in the sextett, one of the best I have ever heard. His partnership with Dessay in the mad scene (done with glass harmonica) was particularly positive.

As to the staging, again I cannot see why the fuss – the solutions for the opening and the Wolf Crag scene are downright cheap, the little comical touches throughout simply distracting and the sceneries could look provincial (especially in the mad scene). Although the old sets did not show an ounce of imagination, their claustrophobic interiors and evocative outdoors produce the right effect more immediately than the new ones – at least for me.

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