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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Polenzani’

I have seen wonderful performances at the Met and occasionally some bad ones – but tonight’s Don Giovanni is probably the most lacklustre I have ever seen in that prestigious opera house. Frankly, I left the theatre wondering why it was found necessary to stage it at all.  I understand that the selling feature is supposed to be Erwin Schrott’s Don Giovanni – but again is it still something surprising enough to justify a second-rate staging in which Schrott’s manic Don Giovanni seems entirely ill-at-ease?

In any case, Erwin Schrott is still the shining feature in the whole staging. He has the voice, the attitude and the physique du rôle. More than that, his almost frantic approach fits the part (I wouldn’t say the same of his Figaro, though). He knows Da Ponte’s text and is free to explore the many theatrical possibilities it allows. When the Leporello is available for this interaction, the whole show gains a lot from that – and Ildar Abdrazakov established a good partnership with his Don Giovanni. It is only a pity that his voice seems to have shrunk both in volume and range since last time I saw him. On the other hand, I felt sorry for Susan Graham, who seemed a bit disturbed by Schrott’s ad libs. She missed her line twice because of that and I believe it is somehow ungracious to unbalance a colleague like that on stage.

In any case, Graham had other problems to deal with. I have written that before – casting a mezzo as Donna Elvira is a troublesome affair. Truth be said, she was probably the less unsuccessful example of this rule I can report so far. She has exemplary control of divisions, floats lovely high pianissimi and has attitude to spare, not to mention that few singers in my experience showed such understanding of the role’s mezzo carattere nature. That said, the tonal quality was pale, legato was mostly nonexistent and pitch was approximative. Mi tradì did not sound comfortable, even with the adjustments, but emotionally tame and vocally only correct.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s Donna Anna was something of an irritating experience to me – up to a high g, her performance was exemplary – her voice was once firm, forward, clear and flexible – everything a Mozartian voice must be. Above that, if we are not talking of her lovely floated pianissimi, the tone was otherwise constricted, bottled up, not truly in pitch, unfocused. We got the Waldseligkeit-version of Or sai chi l’onore with enough mezza voce to make Montserrat Caballé envious. Non mi dir fared a little bit better (and I must acknowledge that she brought more spirit into it than many a famous prima donna), but the recessed tonal quality of her high register seriously needs rethinking.

Matthew Polenzani used to have an almost Wunderlich-ian voice and I had great hopes in him. I don’t know if the frequentation of heavier works is to blame, but the juice in his tone is mostly gone. He still leaves a positive impression with his elegant phrasing, ease with softer dynamics and good taste. I cannot say the same of Monica Yunus (a replacement for Isabel Leonard). Her hallmark role is Papagena – and one could guess that from the metallic, unfocused sound she produced throughout. Unfortunately, Phillip Ens’s Commendatore was too rusty and curdled.

If Don Giovanni was a divertimento,  Louis Langrée’s conducting would be exemplary. Everything exuded elegance, the accompanying figures in the orchestra had an admirable cantabile quality and the structural clairity was something to marvel. The house band accordingly produced a light, supple sound. However, Don Giovanni is not a divertimento – and I expected more from someone who can offer theatrical accounts of Mozart’s sacred music…

Marthe Keller’s production is discrete to the point of being indifferent. Everything looks beige, the closing scene is an anti-climax, the costumes are idiossincratic… Really, Peter Gelb’s “new Met” could do better.

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Mozart’s over-the-top-on-purpose Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail has been performed only 67 times in the Metropolitan Opera House. Some might say that the German dialogues might have something to do with that; I would rather blame the impossible casting: something like the German version of a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a flexible lyric tenor with an absolutely free top register, a soubrette with in alts and a basso profondo (profondissimo?) with perfect control of divisions and ease for patter… in German. If you check the discography, most symptomatically no recording features a cast like that.

You might imagine how much of a challenge this work is for any opera house. If the Met did not produce a cast in the standards of a Gruberová/Araiza/Moll-team, it is only because singers like that do no exist these days. Before I am accused of ungenerosity, I hasten to explain that I am convinced that today’s is the best possible casting one could think of. In the case of Matthew Polenzani, I still wonder if he does not belong to the shortlist of great Belmontes. It is true that the frequentation of heavier roles has robbed a bit of the golden quality of his tenor, but he still sings it with impressive fluency and richness of tone. Probably only Wunderlich would offer such liquid warmth in this demanding role. What I’ve missed is precisely the way the legendary German tenor caressed his fioriture, while Polenzani sounds a bit as if he were really looking forward to the end of every fastidious melisma. Belmontes less gifted by nature – such as Kurt Streit or the late Deon van der Walt - finally pulled out more convincing results in those tricky moments. Maybe this unease explains the adoption of the simplified version of Wenn der Freuden.

Diana Damrau could be a great Konstanze – she does have a most spontaneous high register, impressively clean fioriture and some heft. More solid low notes would help, but that is a problem even some very great Konstanzes (such as Gruberová) had to deal with. However, what will always remain a liability in Mozartian repertoire (with the possible exception of the Queen of the Night, the role that made Damrau famous) is an impure, metallic, harsh quality in her vocal production that devoids it entirely of loveliness. I am dying to use the word “focus” (because I use it a lot), but that is exactly what her soprano wants. The lack of focus prevents her from producing clean trills, from piercing through ensembles when in her middle and low registers and finally and most seriously from offering truly consistent legato. I notice she is a very energetic person – and sometimes singers with such disposition tend to overkill a bit. In any case, I don’t wish to complain about her performance: Diana Damrau is an extraordinarily intelligent singer, who invests her lines and phrases with such dramatic understanding and meaning that one cannot help enjoying her work. Her ease with mezza voce is also a strong asset. The descending serpentine phrasing in the end of Traurigkeit has rarely been so expressively handled and the way she blended her voice with the strings in des Himmels Segen belohne dich (in Matern aller Arten) was spellbinding.

Kristinn Sigmundsson was an excellent Osmin. The extreme low notes were not his best moments (as with almost every bass in this role), but his dark firm tone, his flexibility, imagination and sheer charisma were more than compensation. I had only seen this Icelandic Bass in serious roles and did not know he had such a bent for comedy!

Aleksandra Kurzak has the right quicksilvery voice for Blondchen and did not seem fazed with the very high notes in Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, the voice lacks some substance and Welche Wonne, Welche Lust was a bit brittle. I felt somewhat sorry for Steve Davislim. He does not seem to be a very playful fellow and did seem a bit annoyed with having to play the ebullient Pedrillo. That did not prevent him from offering a firm-toned Frisch zum Kampfe, though.

It must sound surprising, however, that the shining feature of today’s performance was David Roberton’s masterly conducting. Rarely have I seen the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra so adept in Mozart style as today – the strings were entirely at ease with the rapid passagework, the level of clarity was admirable, not to mention the sense of animation so important in this score. Robertson offered vigorous, crystalline and dramatic alert conducting – the overture itself was exemplary in the way it filled the “Turkish” and “European” themes with the sense of storytelling.

If I am not mistaken, John Dexter’s is the Met’s old production from 1979. It still looks well in its Henri Rousseau-like portrayal of a cardboard Turkey. Some costumes look a bit 70′s-bound and the stage direction is only fair, if unobtrusive. I have to confess a more positive Selim than Matthias von Stegmann would be helpful. His portrayal is so devoid of menace and passion that it makes difficult to understand why Konstanze would fear or respect him at all.

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James Levine’s credentials as a Mozartian are widely acknowledged. In his hands, the score of a Mozart opera is given the apparently incompatible virtues of suppleness and rhythmic propulsion – all of that dictated by a deep knowledge of theatre, what is of paramount importance in the drammi giocosi by Da Ponte. In this sense, Levine’s perfect understand of shifting in moods is admirable. It is true that a sculptor needs the right marble – and in Levine’s case this is the Vienna Philharmonic, as his rightly famous recordings prove. Although the Met’s orchestra is sincerely dedicated to its maestro, it is undeniable that Mozart exuberant passagework is still hard work for string players. That said, Levine is the kind of conductor who helps his musicians to make their best – and his cast should certainly appreciate that, especially in the trickiest passages, where his beat always came handy in order to give them time to breathe or to develop a line without making violence to the flow of phrasing. In this sense, Lesley Koenig’s production is also most welcome in its unobtrusiveness and elegance. Only director Robin Guarino should bear in mind that this kind of comedy is the one you smile rather than laugh with. This can be particularly bothersome when a particularly difficult roulade or trill is shadowed by the audience’s hilarity.

Barbara Frittoli’s vocal production these days is not immediately compatible with Mozartian repertoire. And that is not because she has poor technique, but rather because her technique is a bit unconventional. The tone has a certain veiled quality that takes to mezza voce almost automatically. One could point out that she is also over-reliant on that ability in order to get away with the most difficult points, where her clean divisions are always a blessing. In any case, once you adjust to her exotic velvety shadowy and ultimately sexy sound, her Fiordiligi is definitely appealing. Unlike most exponents of the part, Frittoli is a sunny, only half-serious girl, more practical and ready to some entertainment than we are used to see.

The lovely Magdalena Kozena was a perky Dorabella, sung in her oboe-like flexible high mezzo and a powerful amount of imagination and charm. Although these sisters’ voice were nicely contrasted, the blending in her duets was simply admirable. More than that, it is praiseworthy that Kozena sounded almost as idiomatic as her Italian colleague. The result was crispy recitatives and a sense of true interaction between both artists.

Alternating Fenton with Ferrando may be a feat in itself, but it may have had something to do with the time Matthew Polenzani needed to focus his high register for Mozartian needs. Because of that, Un’aura amorosa sounded uncomfortable and uninspiring. However, act II revealed the American tenor at his best. Both Ah, lo vegg’io and Tradito, schernito were sung with golden liquid tone even in the exposed high notes and his interaction with Frittoli in their duet was also top class. Even next to such enticing tenorism, Mariusz Kwiecien can boast to have stolen the show with his firm flexible and dark-hued baritone. He is certainly going places.

There is no need to say Thomas Allen was a Don Alfonso to the manner born. Only an occasional lack of space in the bottom register could be singled out in a virtually perfect performance. He too can boast to have idiomatic Italian, as one could see in his scenes with Nuccia Focile’s Despina. It is a pity, though, that this spirited Italian soprano no longer has the technical finish to this repertoire. Some overacting had to do what voice alone could not.

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James Levine’s credentials as a Mozartian are widely acknowledged. In his hands, the score of a Mozart opera is given the apparently incompatible virtues of suppleness and rhythmic propulsion – all of that dictated by a deep knowledge of theatre, what is of paramount importance in the drammi giocosi by Da Ponte. In this sense, Levine’s perfect understand of shifting in moods is admirable. It is true that a sculptor needs the right marble – and in Levine’s case this is the Vienna Philharmonic, as his rightly famous recordings prove. Although the Met’s orchestra is sincerely dedicated to its maestro, it is undeniable that Mozart exuberant passagework is still hard work for string players. That said, Levine is the kind of conductor who helps his musicians to make their best – and his cast should certainly appreciate that, especially in the trickiest passages, where his beat always came handy in order to give them time to breathe or to develop a line without making violence to the flow of phrasing. In this sense, Lesley Koenig’s production is also most welcome in its unobtrusiveness and elegance. Only director Robin Guarino should bear in mind that this kind of comedy is the one you smile rather than laugh with. This can be particularly bothersome when a particularly difficult roulade or trill is shadowed by the audience’s hilarity.

Barbara Frittoli’s vocal production these days is not immediately compatible with Mozartian repertoire. And that is not because she has poor technique, but rather because her technique is a bit unconventional. The tone has a certain veiled quality that takes to mezza voce almost automatically. One could point out that she is also over-reliant on that ability in order to get away with the most difficult points, where her clean divisions are always a blessing. In any case, once you adjust to her exotic velvety shadowy and ultimately sexy sound, her Fiordiligi is definitely appealing. Unlike most exponents of the part, Frittoli is a sunny only half-serious girl, more practical and ready to some entertainment than we are used to see.

The lovely Magdalena Kozena was a perky Dorabella, sung in her oboe-like flexible high mezzo and a powerful amount of imagination and charm. Although these sisters’ voices were nicely contrasted, the blending in her duets was simply admirable. More than that, it is praiseworthy that Kozena sounded almost as idiomatic as her Italian colleague. The result was crispy recitatives and a sense of true interaction between both artists.

Alternating Fenton with Ferrando may be a feat in itself, but it may have had something to do with the time Matthew Polenzani needed to focus his high register for Mozartian needs. Because of that, Un’aura amorosa sounded uncomfortable and uninspiring. However, act II revealed the American tenor at his best. Both Ah, lo vegg’io and Tradito, schernito were sung with golden liquid tone even in the exposed high notes and his interaction with Frittoli in their duet was also top class. Even next to such enticing tenorism, Mariusz Kwiecien can boast to have stolen the show with his firm flexible and dark-hued baritone. He is certainly going places.

There is no need to say Thomas Allen was a Don Alfonso to the manner born. Only an occasional lack of space in the bottom register could be singled out in a virtually perfect performance. He too can boast to have idiomatic Italian, as one could see in his scenes with Nuccia Focile’s Despina. It is a pity, though, that this spirited Italian soprano no longer has the technical finish to this repertoire. Some overacting had to do what voice alone could not.

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Although one can always acquire a taste, sometimes you really have to work hard for it. So here goes my confession: I don’t like Falstaff. I know all the reasons why I should, but the ear can be deaf to reasoning in matters like that. With that in mind, considering the good opinion friends of good taste have on this season’s Met Falstaff, I have bought a ticket on the level of price I reserve to the operas _I_ like. Well, it seems I am condemned not to like it – at least in this life – since James Levine’s conducting was indeed admirable. Richard Strauss, whose opinion is way way more significant than mine, was a great admirer of the work and wrote a letter to Verdi expressing his admiration. In this sense, Levine could find the connection between both composers on producing rich orchestral sound perfectly descriptive in its instrumental effects. Sometimes the richness of sound would pose problems to singers. But that’s also a Straussian feature, one could argue. In that sense, maybe a more exuberant-voiced cast would have been helpful. As it is, only Stephanie Blythe, a spirited Ms. Quickly, could sail above the deluxe strings without any effort in her strong focused and penetrating mezzo. A major performance. Matthew Polenzani’s dulcet but positive Fenton was also most welcome. Maria Zifchak’s firm and pleasant mezzo is worthy of mention too – and that is a compliment for any Meg. On the other hand, the charming and musicianly Patricia Racette had very little leeway to start with. The result was a permanent colorless tone. The same could be said of Heidi Grant Murphy’s Nanetta, who was able to succeed nonetheless in producing the necessarily ethereal pianissimi. As for Roberto Frontali, his Italianate tone and energy helped him through having to sing Ford in a big theatre.

Regarding Bryn Terfel, it is hard to say something definitive about his performance. First of all, it seemed it was not a good night for him. He had some trouble with one or two top notes until he got entirely grey-voiced in the forest scene. However, before that, his handsome bass-baritone was pleasant all the way, even in the poor patches. Although Terfel has developed into something far less artificial than his studio recording with Abbado, it is still something “from outside to inside”, built rather from an intellectual approach for something that should be completely spontaneous. When one think of the great Italian exponent of the parts, natural flamboyance is a key element of all that. In this sense, Terfel’s studied extroverts placed him far from pole position in this competition. Of course, the part of Falstaff might be approached from other points-of-view. The excellent Gabriel Bacquier, in Götz Friedrich’s film, for example, builds his Falstaff from a Baron Ochs-like decadent patrician perspective incredibly funny in its seriousness, something which would become Terfel’s nobility of tone and somewhat narcissistic temper.

Finally, I don’t know if I was really keen on the revival of Zeffirelli 1960′s production. It certainly looked liked its age, not because it was in bad shape (it has been entirely refurbished), but because it looks like those pale photographs of productions we see in books. Something like “Gabriela Tucci’s Alice is wooed by Giuseppe Taddei’s Falstaff in this 1957 production in Florence”. Maybe I had just expected something more glamorous.

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