Even among Verdi’s early works, his sixth opera, I Due Foscari, is a rarity. Compared to Nabucco or Ernani, it takes a long while to launch – I would say it actually does it in a powerful closing scene. Some (Verdi included) blame the libretto inspired in Lord Byron’s dramatically tame play. Although Piave basically repeats the same structure for every scene – someone interrupts something that eventually happens anyway – the historical events around Venice’s Doge Francesco Foscari are indeed operatic material. I would rather blame Verdi himself, who was not at his more melodically inspired and not really able to depict the dramatic situations – the first performances in Vienna had the audience laughing at a waltz reminiscent of Johann Strauss in one very depressing scene.
In any case, when you have a cast up to the challenging vocal parts, it can be a rewarding experience. The Deutsche Oper should be praised by its serious attempt of resurrecting the opera. Conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, for instance, seemed to be determined to prove that there is drama from bar one in the score. With the help of of a fully engaged orchestra and top-class choral singing, he certainly fared better than the bureaucratic Lamberto Gardelli in his studio recording with the ORF orchestra. However, there was a price to pay for the intensity, which was loudness. Without that, the distinguished cast here gathered could be even more convincing.
American soprano Angela Meade, who has made me an admirer since an impressively sung Semiramide a couple of years ago, showed Berlin what golden age is about. Her lyric soprano has gained richness and power without any loss of clarity, offering round, creamy, unforced tones throughout. Although Katia Ricciarelli’s soprano is more immediately seductive in the studio recording, Meade is simply more at ease with the demands and excitingly coped with faster tempi. She could not restrain herself from wowing the audience with an extra in-alt, Caballé-ian high pianissimi and kilometrically long phrases without breathing pauses. The way she presided over ensembles was particularly chilling. Although she is not the sacro-fuoco kind of singer, she is far from musically bland either – and sang the role of Lucrezia Conterini with the necessary passion. Exhilarating as her performance was, I wish that she and the conductor could relax a bit more for her to sculpt a bit more her phrasing, as Ricciarelli often could do – in other words, giving the music and the text a bit more time. But that’s me trying to make something truly exceptional a bit more believable for my 12 or 13 readers. In Gardelli’s CDs José Carreras takes the role of Jacopo Foscari, singing with unbridled impetuosity. Healthy in its exuberant high notes as the Spanish tenor’s recording is, I am afraid I prefer Ramón Vargas’s more sensitive and restrained approach. His voice is on the light side for this role, but the tonal quality is so pleasing and he phrases with such good taste that the trade-off is more than worthwhile. It is amazing that the 70-year-old Leo Nucci still sings with such firmness and power, but – even in his prime his singing was never warm, noble and smooth as Piero Cappuccilli’s (again in Gardelli’s CDs). What made his Foscari interesting was his high theatrical voltage – and that he’s still got. The dramatic solo when the Doge is asked to resign in act III was delivered with formidable intensity, bringing the house down with shouts of bravo and applause. I cannot say how complete this performance was, but I have missed the arioso Oh, morte fossi allora for the baritone in the scene that opens the second part of act III. I might be wrong – I don’t intend to seem a connoisseur of early Verdi… Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer deserves special mention – his rock-solid, forceful, dark bass will procure him a great career. Although his Italian is good enough, if he could be a little bit more idiomatic, he could certainly navigate the Italian repertoire, as René Pape has done.
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If Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is now part of the repertory of the world’s opera houses, James Levine has had a great share of responsibility in it. He saw in Mozart’s last opera a “neglected masterpiece” and helped to make it widely known in a Unitel production directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle available on VHS, LD and then DVD featuring Tatiana Troyanos in the role of Sesto, a legendary impersonation. In various seasons in the Metropolitan Opera, this opera has seen glamourous casting with the likes of Renata Scotto, Anne Sofie von Otter, Ben Heppner et al.
Then today, for the first time, the opera was performed at the Met with a conductor other than James Levine. As much as Harry Bicket offered us a most reliable account of this score, I still believe Levine’s love for this music would have made some difference. As performed tonight, sometimes expression and grandeur were achieved with the expense of clarity. The old Ponnelle production holds its own better than its twin sister production, the same director’s Idomeneo for the same theatre. Ponnelle’s static and overformal stage direction (here revived by Laurie Feldman – but you just have to see the video to see its fidelity to the original) may look silly for those not used to opera seria, but it is otherwise refreshing not to see the story carelessly adapted into a corporate drama or a former East European dictatorship…
Lucia Popp once said that a singer has only six days per year when his or her voice is in such excellent shape that you know beforehand that everything is going to be perfect. In the title role, Ramón Vargas was clearly not in one of these days. His tenor lacked brightness during the entire first act and he tried to compensate that with upwards decoration that only brought upon an impression of effort. The intermission proved to be healthy for him. The voice sounded more natural and he handled the difficult coloratura in Se all’impero with confidence and accuracy. In the finale ultimo, few other tenors would pierce through the remaining soloists, chorus and orchestra as he did tonight. Considering the positive results, all I can say is that he must be one of the truly great Titos in a good-voice day.
Although Susan Graham sounds these days more like a short soprano than a mezzo, her sensitive account of the role of Sesto is truly touching. She is a natural Mozartian and dealt with the fireworks of the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio with panache and could break anyone’s heart with her deeply felt Deh per questo istante solo. In the difficult role of Vitellia, Tamar Iveri had everything in her favour but a more powerful voice. In a smaller hall, she should work to the right effect in this role. At the Met, her rich flexible soprano tended to disappear in ensembles. In the trio Vengo, aspettate, for instance, she was barely hearable. On a positive note, she negotiated the low notes quite commendably and displayed the right temper for the role. Although Non più di fiori is not usually billed as a mad scene, it fulfills the basic requirements for that – and the Georgian soprano explored this concept most successfully.
Both Anke Vondung and Oren Gradus offered reliable performances as Annio and Publio. Only Heidi Grant Murphy twittery and shallow soprano was below the level of acceptability, what is a pity considering the lovely aria reserved for Servilia.
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The much awaited début of Guy Joostens’ production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has been talked about in the media as the Natalie Dessay’s Met début in a serious role (if I am not mistaken, her roles in the house have been so far Fiakermilli, Zerbinetta and Olympia). Maybe because of that, her last minute cancellation has thrown an awkward atmosphere in the whole production. It is not that Maureen O’Flynn has spoilt the show. She proved to have nerves of steel on stepping in in circumstances like that. Dexterous as she is, she still has a slightly acidulous voice and her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. However, her tone is penetrating enough for comfort and she looks gracious enough for the role. The problem is that the whole show has been concocted for Dessay’s acting abilities – and her absence left the remaining singers/actors uncomfortable – and that may account’s for the overall reticence in the rest of the cast. Finally granted its Juliette, the whole performance seemed transformed – most of all conductor Bertrand de Billy. While his account of the score on Monday seemed a bit contrived and miscalculated, he showed a mastery of his orchestra and a sense of vitality on Thursday to an extent that someone might take him for another maestro.
And there was Dessay. Although the voice has these days a tendency to spreading on top notes, this is not really bothersome in the theatre. On the contrary, it is a most charming, entirely musical instrument that gives life to every bit of melody in the part of Juliette. Her native French, her tone colouring col testo, her legendary flexibility and accuracy with roulades, runs and trills – there is no doubt that she deserves her reputation and her moving into lyric roles is most welcome. Most noticeable of all was the wealth of stage movements and character building that filled scenes which looked uneventful on Monday. Her Juliette is spirited and whole-hearted in fun and in woe. Accordingly, Ramón Vargas responded more ardently to this Juliette, although his legato seemed to be more thoroughly knit on Monday. His voice is also entirely suited to this role – his dulcet tenor has enough volume for the most exposed moments, although this must not be confounded with the heroic quality one might expect from him considering his recent choice of roles. He sang with grace, sensitivity and sense of style and proved to be comfortable with his acting in a way few tenors in this repertoire do. The other tenor, Dimitri Pittas, in the role of Tybalt, is firm-toned and rightfully incisive to depict the character’s sense of pride and self-importance. Stéphane Degout’s Mercutio is similarly forceful, but also idiomatic and – thank God – unexaggerated. Kristinn Sigmundsson has the right gravitas for the role of Frère Laurent and Joyce DiDonato is a vivacious Stéphano.
As for the production, it is lots of ideas – most of them innocuous but inoffensive. Having the action set on a display of a clock with astrological/astronomic associations seems to imply the idea of ill-starred lovers taken to an untimely death, but that’s too intellectual to guarantee an extra amount of feeling. It certainly looks beautiful, though. I am not a Gounod-ian, so I have seen this opera only once before, in Munich (with Angela Maria Blasi and Marcelo Álvarez), in a wonderful modern production that actually added insight to the story, but my “default” is the MacKerras video in which everything simply looks like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I’ve missed that.
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