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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Il Trovatore’

This time I won’t reproduce Caruso’s quote, but only mention that the Salzburger Festspiele presented Verdi’s Il Trovatore only once in 1962 when Karajan had Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini (and the next year, without Corelli). Some would say that you will never have a cast like that again, but the Festival has decided that you can always try something different when you cannot offer the traditional choice. Their bold move has paid off – this was a performance that showed the audience many interesting possibilities about staging an opera by Giuseppe Verdi in our days. But let’s start with the cast.

Since she has become a mother, Anna Netrebko’s voice has developed in an interesting direction – her middle and low registers have become truly luxuriant and, if her extreme top notes have become less reliable, how many sopranos in lirico spinto repertoire actually venture above a high c these days? I am not sure if Lady Macbeth is her repertoire, but – if you have in mind that probably only Zinka Milanov or Maria Callas were truly beyond reproach as Leonora – Netrebko is a Leonora to be reckoned with. First, the voice as it is now is extra rich, surprisingly voluminous and still flexible enough. The velvety tonal quality, especially in her mezzo-ish, well-connected low register is particularly appealing. She has tried all trills and was successful more often than not, her mezza voce is a bit smoky, but in a good way and, even if one can notice that florid passages require her full attention, she tackles them if not with poise, certainly with diligence. If something requires some extra work, this would be staccato, which could have been tackled with a little bit more roundness and spontaneity. Maybe breath control too – even if she disguises it expertly, some phrases were too often chopped for extra intakes of air. In terms of interpretation, things are rather generalized, but there is passion and animation. In moments such as D’amor sull’ali rosee, one feels that spiritual concentration was secondary to getting the notes done. All that said, the glamor is there, and this is an underrated requirement in this repertoire.

I’ve read the name of Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Azucena with skepticism. I had seen her in Verdi only once as Ms. Quickly and found her light-toned for this repertoire, but today she has shown some unexpected possibilities of her voice. Although her middle register is soft-grained, she opens up in some very rich and forceful mezzo soprano top notes, while still retaining her dark contralto bottom register. Her voice is not Italianate either, but this gave her Azucena a very particular color. Her performance never had a dull moment – she is an experienced Lieder singer and never sang a word without considering its musical-dramatic weight, but did not succumb to the trap of making it fussy and too subtle: she managed Italian emotionalism very well. Actually, I have found many of her Handel roles exaggerated in an almost expressionistic way – but this was put to good use in this role. A compelling and intelligent performance.

Francesco Meli too is light-voiced for the role of Manrico. He is what one calls “a natural tenor”, his voice is spontaneous and appealing and has a good volume for a lyric tenor. He beefs it up a bit for this repertoire, and his high notes sound a bit straight sometimes. However, there is no hint of ugliness here. He is an elegant singer, capable of tone coloring and dynamic variety, what made his Manrico more vulnerable and sensitive than usual. Di quella pira, as predicted, even with adaptations to accommodate the unwritten top note, does not really come in the package, even if he cannot be accused of disgracing himself in it.

Replacing an ailing Plácido Domingo, Artur Rucinski too proved to have had interesting developments since I last saw him as the Count Almaviva in the Schiller-Theater. As the Count di Luna, he sounded like a lighter version of Giorgio Zancanaro, singing with unfailingly firm-tone and bel canto-ish poise. His extremely long breath is particularly amazing. He deservedly received thunderous applause this afternoon. Riccardo Zanellato offered a vivid account of Ferrando’s aria, and Diane Haller was a bright-toned and well-focused Ines.

Daniele Gatti found a good balance between a musically detailed approach, bringing to the fore many hidden niceties in the score, and the need for raw energy in strong accents, animated tempi and richness of sound. In this, he had the world’s ideal orchestra for this music: the Vienna Philharmonic at its most crystalline and flexible, singing together with singers on stage. This was Verdian music-making of the highest level.

Il Trovatore is an opera that resents the “régie”-treatment, but Alvis Hermanis has found a very particular niche where this works: the opera opera is staged in a museum in which museum guides and guards mix fantasy and reality under the influence of the paintings they “live” with. Not only these paintings in their red wallpaper museum walls are very atmospheric, but Hermanis has studied the score to find the right moments to shift from present to the past. For instance, Azucena is first seen in modern clothes leading a group of art students when she sings the more “conventional” verses of Stride la vampa, but is transformed in a gipsy woman when telling the more “realistic” and modern music of Condotta ell’era in ceppi.

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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.

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Il Trovatore is widely acknowledged as opera’s most ridiculous libretto – an opinion I do not share. If you know something about Spanish theatre, you happen to know that the idea is really going over the top – especially during the days of Romanticism. And I tell you – Spanish language does make the 100% emotionalism believable. Verdi was well aware of this – and denied no expressive tools to produce raw, gutsy depiction of strong feelings on the stage. If you try to polish the proceedings, then your Trovatore is a lost case.

I would not say that the Met’s new Trovatore is a lost case – there is a lot to be cherished there, but the overall impression is of misfiring. A new production has been ordered from David McVicar, who claims to have found inspiration in the paintings of Goya. I am sure he is telling the truth, but the staging looked just like every other Trovatore you have seen in your life. And this may mean that he was respectful to the libretto (a rare quality these days), but the politeness we could witness at the Met – that, I am sure, does not come from Goya.  One must recognise that McVicar tries to throw in some spice by adding some prostitutes to the Soldiers Chorus and by having his prima donna throwing herself on the ground, crawling and panting at the least opportunity – but everybody seemed to be working hard for intensity and also a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Intensity is something you cannot fake – if you do not have it, better go for dignity, something Italian operatic directors are well aware of.

As much as Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting showed a loving eye for the score, trying to highlight accompanying figures, to keep rhythms precise and flowing and to highlight dramatic gestures, the orchestral sound was too recessed to produce any kind of true excitement. Noseda was an attentive conductor for his singers, helping them in every moment of need – and keeping the orchestra in medium volume levels was essencial for a cast almost devoid of dramatic voices, but other maestros have been able to keep a brighter edge to their orchestral sound that keeps the sparkles going when sheer volume is impossible. I would mention Riccardo Muti’s live from La Scala, where a similar lighter-voiced casting was employed.

Sondra Radvanosky’s abilities as a Verdian soprano have always been an object of dispute.  It is undeniable that she fulfils some key requirement – it is a sizeable voice, capable of morbidezza (even if the tone is too veiled for this repertoire), flexibility, mezza voce and some stunning high notes (she took every optional in alt available and some more). However, her low register is not positive and projecting as the role requires, she is a bit challenged by trills (a fault shared by many a soprano tackling this role) and her soft singing is not always true on pitch. Her Tacea la notte was a bit uneventful and its cabaletta (reduced to one verse) was uncomfortable. On the other hand, she achieved some soaring efects in D’ amor sul’ ali rosee (although true abandon was not really there), showed real purpose in the Miserere and, a few notes barred, was quite impressive in Tu vedrai. What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, she has a good ear to find musical-dramatic effects in the writing of the role of Leonora, to chilling effects in her dying scene.

Dolora Zajick is an acknowledged Azucena and, although she was not in her best voice (the basic tonal quality seemed too nasal and somewhat recessed), she did not pull away from any challenge thrown by Verdi – she tried every trill in Stride la vampa, offered some big chest voice low notes and some really powerful top notes (she even tried a not entirely successful high c in her big scene with Manrico). Although her diction was a bit cloudy, she never refused her phrasing the necessary tone colouring and showed no problem with high mezza voce.  If I have some remark about her Azucena, it would be that, although her anguish was palpable, her madness seemed a bit artifficial and there was no sense of danger in her.

I had doubts about Marcelo Alvarez’s Manrico, soon dispelled. His medium volume lyric tenor has enough projecting quality for a big house and he phrases with such musicianship and good taste that you cannot resist him. One feels he is a bit cautious with the heroic moments, but he never produces an ugly or unmusical sound. I doubt there are many tenors around who can offer such a sensitive and dulcet-toned Ah, si ben mio these days. The problem is that Di quella pira does not come in the combo – even if the aria is transposed down a half-tone, he still feels uncomfortable about it. He commendably dealt with articulating the tricky divisions most tenor just glide through, but in order to achieve his matte high b, he had to let his interventions with the chorus unsung and the repeat was avoided. It is true that he was announced to be indisposed, but his problems with this fearsome aria seemed to be more an issue of Fach than of health.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s velvety baritone is still a treat to the ears – his stylish Il balen is an example of that – but his ease with big high notes is not entirely here anymore. He has charisma and gets away with some awkward moments – he is also the person with more panache on stage (although the stage direction reduced much of his menacing attitude).  Finally, Kwangchul Youn is glamourous piece of casting in the role of Ferrando.

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