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Posts Tagged ‘Violeta Urmana’

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an opera often described as metaphysical, profound, transcendental and musicians and members of the audience often approach it with extreme reverence, often trying to frame their experience of the opera itself by a priori concepts rather than by the experience itself. Not today – my neighbours this evening behaved as if they were watching an adventure film in the movie theatre. A couple next to me seemed to have found it highly entertaining – they even laughed of the Liebestod. When I was going to get angry, I realized that the fact that they were watching it under a completely different light (even if bothersome and disrespectful one) made me realize that someone else – and a very important one – seemed to be seeing the whole thing with fresh eyes and ears. And this was veteran conductor Peter Schneider.

I had seen Maestro Schneider conduct this work in Bayreuth and praised his flexible beat and the beauty of the orchestral sound. On reading what I wrote then, I cannot help noticing that it has nothing to do with this evening, when the conductor seemed to have taken everything at face value: there was no concerns of producing important sounds, of manipulating tempo to produce gravitas or of adding any kind of profoundness. On the contrary, he kept a very regular beat that could give the impression that he could relax more either in exciting or meditative moments, his orchestra produced distinctively bright sounds in the string section and never overshadowed the other sections, his approach was built towards very clean, singing lines of accompanying figures that shared with the soloists the same degree of importance. Since we are talking about Wagner, the accompanying figures – although played with nearly Donizetti-ian flavor – are almost invariably Leitmotive and their variation. That made this evening revelatory in terms of structural clarity. Also, the house orchestra’s playing had an urgency that sometimes tampered with polish, but kept you in the edge of your seat in a Marth Argerich-ian way, especially in passages where the violins were able to showcase outstanding flexibility. As a result, the performance – in its lack of austerity – often seemed blunt in its obstinate forward-movement, its Verdian glittery passageworks, its almost bombastic succession of chords attacked straight-to-the-matter. As the soloists too seemed determined to avoid venerability and had almost all of them very clear diction, many scenes sounded quite new to me shorn of their dignified grandeur. This evening, Isolde’s indignation in act I had more than a splash of whim and Brangäne’s selflessness something of meddling for her own amusement; Tristan’s obscure musings in act II sound less philosophical than testosterone-ridden. If I give the impression that this made the story more superficial, do not mistake my words: I’ve found it quite refreshing to see these characters more realistic in their motivations in a storyline almost devoid of action.

This is the first time I could see Violeta Urmana in a complete performance as Isolde. I’ve heard a broadcast from Rome long ago and saw her sing act II in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and have found her one of the most interesting singers in this role these days. She was announced indisposed and took almost the entire first act to warm up and, even after that, had to carefully negotiate some high-and-loud passages, but she hasn’t disappointed me. First, there is some almost Italianate vocal glamour in her performance: the low and medium registers are warm and fruity, she is capable of legato and soft attack in lyric passages and the edge on her acuti (which can be bothersome in recordings) do help her to pierce through when the orchestra is really loud. Second, although she is not a terrific actress, she has studied this role with unusual attentiveness – she clearly knows her words, has an opinion about her character and portrays all that with both the verbal specificity of a Lieder singer and the attitude of someone who has sung roles like Norma or Aida. Third, she is bien deans sa peau in this role, which she portrays with sensuousness and femininity. This is really more than we can say about most Isoldas.

Her Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, whom I had seen in this part in Bayreuth, also with Peter Schneider. There, the acoustics helped him a lot. This evening, the lack of squillo in his high register sometimes made him inaudible amidst an unleashed Vienna State Orchestra. The role is still very distant to his personality, but this production makes his work harder to see to this problem. The results are not entirely convincing, but – in the context of this performance – this vulnerable, young-sounding Tristan makes particular sense. Especially when he sings so musically and with absolute technical security (his breath is impressively long, to start with).

The role of Brangäne is on the heavy side for Elisabeth Kulman, but she is a smart singer with solid technique and by unfailing focus, crystalline diction and dramatic imagination produced a compelling performance. Matthias Goerne too finds the role of Kurwenal heavy for his voice. However, differently from Ms. Kulman, his whole method is incompatible with Wagnerian singing. In the rare lyrical moments in the part, he provides beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, but he is often hectoring and producing white-toned high notes. Last but not least, Albert Dohmen – in spite of a rusty tonal quality – produced a far more varied and touching performance as King Marke than I could have expected, considering the last times I saw him.

There is not much to speak of David McVicar’s highly stylized and very superficial staging. I dislike the choreographed seamen but find the rest quite harmless in their basic colors and unobtrusiveness. However, although the production dates from 2013, it seems that the Personenregie is sometimes already lost. There were moments when these singers had not much idea of why they were doing what they were supposed to do and felt therefore free to do their thing. Fortunately, their “thing” often worked well this evening

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My six or seven readers know by now that I am not a fan of Simon Rattle and that I usually find his Wagner too bombastic and lacking depth, but I had never had the opportunity to hear Violeta Urmana’s Isolde live and decided to take my chance. I won’t keep you in suspense – it was more than worth the detour. Rattle’s Tristan (judging from his rendition of the second act alone) is still work-in-progress, but the “preview” made me curious for what is to come. I am tempted to say that the chemistry between the conductor and the Berliner Philharmoniker is not really positive for Wagner, but I would need a crystal ball to say that (moreover, it would be dishonest to do so, considering that my experience is reduced to one concert in the Philharmonie and one DVD from Aix), but the fact is that the presence of the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra that has learned its Tristan to perfection with Daniel Barenboim, proved to have a very positive effect on Mr. Rattle. I would be lying if I said that the orchestral playing was less than ardent, passionate, inspired. It would be also a lie to say that the success is due to the orchestra’s quality alone, for Rattle’s approach to the score is very different from Barenboim’s.

Although the many facets of this evening’s performance do not really build into a coherent view of the score, they are really fascinating in themselves. First of all, Rattle’s choice of tempi belongs to a tradition (the absence of a tradition maybe?) entirely different from Furtwänglerian suppleness and gravitas. If it would be possible to say something like that of a Wagnerian performance, Rattle’s was quite a tempo, the sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word “focus” is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the “singing” line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity. This alone made it a special evening.

If my six or seven readers are still reading this paragraph, they might be wondering where the drawbacks are. So here they come. First, I wonder how wise it was to choose, in the context of this a tempo approach, such a fast “basic beat”. While it kept the more meditative moments particularly taut, it made the more urgent moments frantic: I would not say awkward, for the orchestra did a splendid job out of it, but the effect was a bit mechanical, the sense of transparency suffered a bit and singers were having the worst time of their lives spitting out things like habichdichwiederdarfichdichfassen [gasp]anmeinerbrust. Second, dynamics. Karajan must be smiling in his grave, for the playing with dynamics would made his EMI Tonmeister in his recording with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers proud. I have just deleted the adjective “fussy”, for the score shows that Wagner has indeed written those dynamic markings and they do not sound so extreme in a less hectic pace. In that sense, a Furtwänglerian Luftpause now and then would have made miracles. Third, if Rattle could keep his audience in the edge of their seats with his faithful obedience of the many Sehr drängend in the score, the general atmosphere was already urgent enough and in the end nervousness had the edge on variety of expression. And Wagner wrote a lots of ausdrucksvoll in the score too. Finally, a true Wagnerian conductor knows that he cannot conduct against his singers, especially in the concert hall with the big orchestra just behind them. All this is only a matter of fine-tuning, and although it was a problematic evening (the audience, for instance, did not seem particularly enthusiastic* – I would guess that the problem with singers should be largely to blame), it was also an intriguing and ultimately refreshing performance.

Although Violeta Urmana sang quite commendably, I would guess that maybe she was not in her absolutely best voice this evening. She could be just be heard over the orchestral fortissimi, but her voice often acquired a metallic harshness in those moments. The more difficult high notes posed her no problem (she should be proud of her flashing high c’s, for instance), but as soon as the orchestra’s voluminousness reached comfortable levels, the warmth of her voice could be felt and she would finally feel at ease to do what makes her a particularly welcome Isolde: singing those sensuous phrases with absolute femininity in  her round, full middle and low registers and her rich, vibrant top notes and lovely soft attacks that make all the difference of the world. There are far more intense and exciting Isoldes out there, but I have a soft spot for Urmana’s musicianly, seductive account of this role – even in an evening when the circumstances were not really congenial. With her dark, round and creamy mezzo-soprano, Lioba Braun has surprisingly clear diction and, thank God, can float her Habet acht! soaring phrases without any difficulty. Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is really beautiful and he handles the text with the care of a Lieder singer; his König Marke is indeed touchingly sung. He showed some instability in high notes when he had to sing fully and loud, but that is only a detail. The casting of Hanno Müller-Brachmann for just a couple of notes as Kurwenal and of veteran Reiner Goldberg as Melot is almost a show-off.

Although Robert Dean Smith was supposed to sing Tristan this evening, he fell ill and was replaced by Ian Storey, who is in town for his Énée at the Deutsche Oper. Considering how difficult his role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens is, it was quite generous of him. But these things have a price. Storey has some very big heroic top notes, but I have the impression that a bar fades out in his battery-level display for each one of them. While he still has the energy to tackle them, it is quite impressive, but when he reaches low-level, then one can feel how strenuous it all is. This evening, his battery leaked out very fast – and the conductor probably is to blame. If you are a tenor and already had to sing the first part of the love duet as loud and as fast as he had to this evening, your heart must be aching for him right now (and remember that the concert naturally offers the uncut version of the duet). Around Heil dem Tranke, his voice was completely gray, he had to duck some notes, sang others in falsetto, I have the impression he even had to clear his throat at some point. He must be a very persistent man and deserves all my admiration, for, although he had to use all the tricks in his sleeves to keep singing, he never really gave up and never lost sight of interpretation, shading his tone when required and singing full out when maybe someone wiser would have thought about that twice.

*At least compared with the standing ovation reserved to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Barenboim as soloist. To my own shame, I have to confess that I’ve had such a busy day that I could not really concentrate to hear it and refrained from writing anything for that matter.

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In view of Violeta Urmana’s debatable success in Verdi, one would tend to dismiss her incursion in bel canto without even hearing a note of it. Nevertheless, her Adalgisa to Nelly Miricioiu’s Norma in Amsterdam back in 1999 was a most satisfying performance. Of course, the title role in the opera is a far more fearsome enterprise.

Before I miss the attention of nay-sayers, I will go to the heart of the matter: Norma is not a role that naturally suits Violeta Urmana’s voice. I am not even entirely convinced that it suits her temper either, but – and this is an important “but” – her stab at it deserves praise nonetheless and speaks favorably to her status as a leading singer in her generation. This is not a performance that will make into history in any sense and must be seen as an example of this singer’s solid technique, good taste, musicianship and endeavor. In any case, the final results are far more consistent than one has recently heard from singers like Maria Guleghina, Hasmik Papian or Fiorenza Cedolins (to name a few recent broadcasts).

It might sound surprisising that the high tessitura proved to be less challenging to Urmana than what I had imagined. It is true that a couple of exposed acuti sounded either edgy or hard pressed, but one did not have the impression that she would not make it or that she was even getting tired out of the effort of requiring so much so often from her high register. If we keep in mind that her repertoire is that of a dramatic soprano, her fioriture are quite decent. She strays from pitch in the middle of a run now and then, but she was consistently true to tempo – and the conductor never slowed the pace to make things easy for her. When a lighter touch was required, she had her ungainly moments, but mezza voce, even in high notes, posed her no difficulties. As expected the edition  had all the adaptations adopted when a singer like this is cast in the main role, including no repeat for Bello, a me ritorna.

In the context of a concert performance, singers tend to concentrate on the vocal aspects, but Urmana could find the necessary theatricality for key moments, although grandeur remained the keynote here. In fact, if I had to single out one quality in her performance, this would be the elegance of her phrasing that brought about a sense of classical poise that fits this repertoire. However, the hallmark aspect of bel canto, the ability to produce the perfect blend of tonal colouring and declamation, eluded her unfortunatey. In this sense, the casting of Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa was especially telling. Even if her voice has seen more flexible and focused days, her skill in giving life to the text through phrasing was quite admirable, especially in what regards dynamics, inflection and tonal variety.

Korean tenor Francesco Hong’s gave me the impression of trying to be more Italian than Italians themselves. His whole attitude evokes the days of Corelli, del Monaco et al. Fortunately for him, his voice is indeed really Italianate and his Italian is idiomatic. A most pleasant tonal quality, a strong, spontaneous middle register and the potential for some exciting top notes should secure him a sucessful career (in spite of a disadvantageous physique), but his technique is rather irregular and impressive moments (he proved to be dramatically engaged and sometimes even nuanced) are often followed by clumsy ones, not to mention that outdated mannerisms appear now and then. Finally, Carlo Colombara’s bass is authoritative and firm-toned, but his legato leaves a lot to be desired.

The Teatro Real’s chorus offered a very good performance, but Massimo Zanetti is probably the wrong man to conduct the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, whose strings lack tonal richness to start with. As the maestro insisted on fast , percussive sounds, the aural picture seemed brassy and abrupt, missing the necessary warmth, especially in elegiac passages. Although the conductor was keen on precision and faithfulness to dynamic markings, the effect was too short in smoothness and expressive power, suggesting rather a work by Rossini than by Bellini sometimes.

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I do not know if the Deutsche Oper used the bad-news-first strategy, but it seems that their Ring has finally found the right track. Regardless of how intrinsically good today’s Walküre was, it is a significant improvement from yesterday’s Rheingold. To start with, Götz Friedrich’s production here is far more efficient than in the tetralogy’s first installment. Peter Sykora’s sets are more functional and better looking and, with the exception of a bunch of pointless props in act II (plastic dolls?) and of an unsensational solution for the magic fire  (as you might remember, it is supposed to be extraordinarily frightening – and four isolated bonfires fifty-centimeter-tall are hardly that). Actually, the costumes shown here are far more frightening – the Valkyries outfit and make-up reminded me the rock band Kiss. However, the most notable positive development is Gerlinde Pelkowski’s Spielleitung: both leading sopranos and the tenor interacted most sensitively – act I was particularly convincing – and gestures were economic, coherent and contributed to the understanding of the story. I am not sure if I actually like the weepy Wotan, but I guess that the approach fits the rather uncharismatic singer taking the role.

Musically, the most immediate difference from yesterday is the larger orchestral sound. Although the brass section still leaves more than something to be desired, the general sound picture was adequate and, by act III, quite satisfactory. It was hardly an orchestral tour de force, but rather honest and acceptable piece of work. Maestro Runnicles showed an inclination for a tad slower tempi than he had adopted at the Met (if my memory does not betray me). Curiously, the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene in act II seemed somewhat fast. Maybe because the Wotan available is not really fluent with the text and has instead an almost Mozartian legato-ish approach, this tricky passage gained a flowing, conversational character which struck me as quite refreshing. Naturally, it would have worked far better if the text could be more expressively handled. The ensuing Todesverkündgung was, on the other hand, particularly slow, an approach that would require from singers far more nuanced phrasing and from the orchestra far more narrating quality (as Maazel produced in his Met’s Walküre in 2008). Act III proved to be more successful, chamber-like textures were provided when necessary, the Walkürenritt clear and well-balanced and the closing scene sensitively built.

It is a pity that Violeta Urmana’s Verdian ventures have been hold against her status of leading singer in our days. Her work in Wagner is of surpassing quality – it is a pleasant, rich-toned, large voice with firm, round top notes with a most musical and elegant quality of phrasing. Of how many Wagnerian singers one could say something like that? Her Sieglinde is a touching portrayal, passion and vulnerability perfectly balanced. No wonder she was the favorite of the audience this evening. Evelyn Herlitzius’s Brünnhilde is more controversial. First of all – and one must keep this in mind on assessing her artistry – she is a singer whose Fach is simply the one required by Wagner for this role: she has no problem with the tessitura, tosses bright, powerful, unconstricted acuti, handles her passaggio to chest voice adeptly and enunciates the text with great accuracy. In fact, her technical security is quite soothing for audiences who have been too often kept at the edge of their seats fearing for the health of the soprano taking this role. That said, it is difficult to warm to the flutter mid-range, the squally articulation and the faulty legato. She is an energetic woman – and this is very positive for her engaging and convincing stage presence – and I have the impression that the overemphasis and the absence of shading (a drawback in the long Wotan/Brünnhilde  scene in act III) are maybe a byproduct of her attitude.

In spite of a a quite unseductive tone, Clifton Forbis is a most efficient Siegmund, who produces some powerful and firm high g’s. His crescendo in the sustained Wälse! Wälse! passage in act I is as impressive as it was in New York. It is a pity that his tenor is growing rather juiceless for cantabile passages – and Winterstürme was probably his weakest moment. He and Urmana established a particularly convincing partnership in their scenes, both musically and scenically. Reinhard Hagen was extremely well cast as Hunding – an all-round most satisfying performance. Mark Delavan’s Wotan still gives me an impression of work-in-progress. He responds for the particular challenges quite successfully, but his performance does not make into a coherent whole, but rather as a collection of moments. He seems to brace for the every musical or theatrical challenge and then simmer down to recover instead of keeping a continuous musical and interpretative line. I have to confess I rather saw in him “the guy playing Wotan”. I understand that he must have James Morris’s smoothly, elegantly sung account of the role as a model, but the veteran singer had at once a more powerful and voluminous voice, more spontaneous musicianship and a far more imposing presence. If Delavan wants to fill his shoes, he should tie all these loose ends in his performance first. It is a pity that Judit Németh was not really in good voice today – her Fricka sounding shrewish above everything else. Among the Valkyries, the Helmwige, Heidi Melton, offered a particularly accomplished ho-jo-to-ho, trills included.

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It seems that Riccardo Muti has decided to launch a campaign to make Italian concert repertoire more widely known by audiences throughout the world. I have seen an all-Italian-music concert in Japan and this evening half program was dedicated to Italian music – his calling card, the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and his fellow Neapolitan Martucci’s La Canzone dei Ricordi.

I have seen Muti play Verdi’s most famous overture more than once, but today’s performance featured truly intense playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker, scintillating strings and inspired solos by the woodwind soloists included. Martucci’s song cycle is a tougher cookie: one of those piece with immediately expressive atmosphere that seem nonetheless to be going nowhere. The orchestra offered exquisite sounds and Violeta Urmana was an ideal soloist – the tessitura is very favourable to her zwischenfach soprano, here at its creamiest, her Italian diction was crystal-clear and she added her customary elegance to these songs that really do not invite Puccinianisms. However, Berliners have already their opinion about what they like best and reserved their most enthusiastic applause for Schubert’s Symphony no.8, performed tonight at its most gutsy and exciting, with animated and astonishingly precise (if not necessarily apollonian) playing from the orchestra.

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Director Dmitri Cherniakov has written that, for a long while, he had understood nothing in Verdi’s Macbeth.  Judging from his staging for the Opéra de Paris, I wonder how much progress he has made. It seems that the Opéra Bastille has a tradition of mixing opera and internet – always for dismal results.  This time the stage is covered by a screen on which we can see something like Google Earth showing a contemporary suburban neighbourhood where Macbeth seems to be some sort of mayor. Why does he wear an uniform therefore or why would he have an army at his disposal – those are questions left for our imagination. In any case, we are shown the same The Sims-like images of Macbeth’s house and of a square where poor people apparently live in what looks like dog houses.

It seems that the Macbeth plot has been reduced to a burgeoisie vs. proletariat (yes, I know – so last-century…), but setting the action in a bainlieu does not make any sense. First of all, high politics are rarely done in bainlieues. And Macbeth involves state ceremonies and a coup d’état. Second, proletaries and bourgeois rarely live at the same neighbourhood. In any case, low-income families in European urban areas tend to live in crowded apartment complexes and not in dog houses. Third, why  would the Macbeths kill people for… nothing? After Duncan’s death, they live at the same shabbily decorated house (they are not even allowed a dining room for their dinner-parties), wear the same frumpy clothes and have the same old and tacky guests. To make things worse, the supernatural elements of the plot are altogether deleted from the story – aparently the proletaries have a collective power of foreseeing things, for anytime Macbeth appears at their dog-house square, the chorus have always new forecasts to give.  Ah, I leave the worst for last – since the Macbeths’  living room is too small, there is no space left for choristers. But you can still hear their voices from… the beyond? I was waiting for the moments when Macduff would say Ihr Unsichtbaren saget mir, lebt denn Duncano noch? Also, when the presence of a soloist on stage does not go with the director’s designs, he or she is heard from backstage through a mircrophone…  It is said that, when a staging is really bad, we say good thing about the costumes and sets. But not here – Mr. Cherniakov has also created them and, if I were Lady Macbeth, I would kill him for making me look like a hag.

All in all, Violeta Urmana must be a very gracious person. She tried to hold her dignity together while doing magic tricks (this seems to be a new cliché in Regietheater) or singing her Sleepwalking Scene in untidy white pyjamas. Although she has dealt quite commendably with Lady Macbeth’s tricky fioriture, trills and dramatic high notes, the role is so distant to her personality that she cannot help sounding unconvincing.  Her best moment would be a high d-flat-less Sleepwalking Scene, sung without any hint of craziness but abounding in rich warm velvety phrasing. Stepping in for Carlos Álvarez, Greek baritone Dimitris Tiliakos has a plausible voice for Macbeth, with a hint of Renato Bruson but too often off-focus in its high register for comfort. As he had little operational space left, his performance tended to the monochrome. Unfortunately, the great Ferruccio Furlanetto was not in his best voice – but that did not prevent him from offering the most spontaneous rendition of the text (in his native language, an advantage not shared by the soprano and the baritone). The audience’s favourite was, however, Stefano Secco, whose bright tenor and ardent delivery made for a young-sounding Macduff.

It seems that conductor Teodor Curentzis has in Paris the reputation (or rather the notoriety) of being the poorman’s Sinopoli. Although his tempi are always faster than the ones adopted by the late controvesial Italian maestro, both do share the fondness for highlighting hidden niceties in the score at the expense of general coherence. I found his beat often whimsical but I tend to view Macbeth as a conductor’s score and it is always refreshing to have someone with ideas rather than a traffic cop on the podium. Nevertheless, all his curiosity did not help him to produce true excitement in the opera’s great ensembles if we are not speaking of sheer loudness.

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Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is an example of opera that disappeared from the seasons of opera houses all over the world only to be ressurrected in this new century. In Madrid for example, the opera has rarely been heard since the 1920’s with the notable exception of a run of performances in the 1970’s in the Teatro de la Zarzuela. And this may account for the cold reception by the audience on February 26th. I had the impression most people at the Teatro Real had no idea of what kind of opera this is and what they should expect.

I happened to be in the Metropolitan Opera’s ressurrection of the same opera in 2006 (also with Violeta Urmana). There, an audience that had been treated many and many times on a regular basis until the 1960’s knows very well what they are supposed to find in this very peculiar work. 

Violeta Urmana is possibly the greatest Gioconda of her generation. Her voice lacks some Italianate brightness, but she handles the difficult writing superbly – her high pianissimo in Madre! Enzo adorato, ah, come io t´amo! was exquisitely handled and she has no problem with the omnipresent percussive acuti, but the lack of encouragement from the audience might have some share of responsibility in her somewhat detached approach. Only in the last act, the proceedings seemed to launch from routine – and conductor Evelino Pidò cannot be held responsible for the lack of excitement. His conducting was exemplary – the polichrome aspect of Ponchielli’s orchestration was shown with mastery and he handled the dramatic effects in the score most efficiently. The house band responded with animation.

Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato offered a praiseworthy performance – his lyric tenor is adapted to emulate a lirico spinto and the trick is very noticeable, but he has a handsome voice and offers some elegant shading into mezza voce when this is necessary. His Cielo e mar had the right balance between ardour and elegance and if his performance is not more memorable, it is only because one feels how close to his limits he is – although expertly – operating. Similarly, baritone Lado Ataneli was a most reliable Barnaba – he sang with unfailing firm tone and sense of line and resisted the kind of vulgarity most baritones in this kind of role seem to indulge.

 In the Met, Urmana sang her Gioconda next to Olga Borodina’s Laura and their scenes were always the highlight of the evening. Elisabetta Fiorillo’s overvibrant mezzo lacks colour and handles awkwardly the passaggio. She does not look or sound attractive and it is difficult to understand why Enzo would prefer her to that nice lady with the pianissimi. Elena Zaremba was similarly overvibrant and it was difficult to guess which notes she was singing so large her vibrato. Her expression of gratitude in act II was far from touching as it should be.

When it comes to Orlin Anastassov, I cannot deny my dissatisfaction with his performance. If you put Paata Burchuladze and Sergei Leiferkus in a blender, the result must be Orlin Anastassov. It is a guttural voice with unclear vowels and this kind of  Leiferkus-like metallic attack. He is a young singer and maybe he should work a bit more in his Italian (and Italian singing style in general) before tackling this kind of role.

Pierluigi Pizzi’s production has been featured in the DVD from the Teatro del Liceu. At first the sets look elegant, but in order to accomodate the gondolas, the sceneries are unconvincingly transformed into a palace, a harbour and most of all Gioconda’s house (as portrayed here, the audience could have the impression she lives in the streets).  I am not fond of the all-in-three-colours costumes, but the most offensive thing is the evident lack of stage direction. Singers are generally standing in the wrong place for the dramatic action, move around with no apparent intent and in the end you really don’t care for what is going on stage. That was probably the point of coreographing a ballet “representing the hours of the day”, as Alvise explains, that has nothing to do with the hours of the day or any identifiable storyline. That said, the dancers were very fine and got the loudest applauses in the evening.

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The Norma debacle at the Metropolitan Opera House has ignited debated whether opera houses should stage such work without a prima donna up to the almost impossible demands made by the title role. This takes us to the question – how often does a theatre has an amazing Norma at its disposal? Many singers have experimented with the role – sometimes to great effect – but left it before it started to take its toil, others have overstayed to their own regret. In any case, considering the interpretative and technical difficulties involved, every good Norma should make into the gramophone. Margaret Price, for example, wasn’t lucky enough to get a decent broadcast and we should thank those half-industrious, half-crazy people who carry a clandestine tape-recorder to the theatre for the memento of her beautiful account of the role.

Fortunately, Nelly Miriciou had a different fate, for a 1999 broadcast of her Norma from Amsterdam is a valuable document of a truly great performance. Although the role is a bit high for her, she is the kind of singer who turns every disadvantage into advantage and creates a three-dimensional role by virtue of technical skill, natural feeling for the words allied to crystalline diction and a really fiery temper. When Adalgisa asks her to depose the celestial authority that surrounds her, for once the listener understands that request, for Miricioiu displays amazing command in public scenes but is also capable of touching tenderness. The long duet with Adalgisa is a perfect exemple. As required, she mellows into intimate melancholy while listening to the young woman’s story, but as soon as she starts to suspect that they are speaking of Pollione, her voice shifts immediately back to her formidable self through tone colouring alone. The closing scene is also original and effective, the keynote being rather worldweariness than regret. Her pleas to her father in favour of her sons show rather spiritual exhaustion than despair.

Miricioiu is brilliantly partnered by Violeta Urmana, a superlative Adalgisa. Her warm sensuous voice was in mint condition and she tackles her division with ease and graciousness and successfully portrays her character’s youth and naiveté. It is a pity that the only remaining great singer in this recording is Wilke Te Broemmelstroete, a particularly noticeable Clotilde. Both Carlo Ventre’s Pollione and Dmitri Kavrakos’s Oroveso are lackadaisical if unobtrosive. Maurizio Barbacini conducts an intense and forward-moving performance and the Dutch orchestra is up to the task.

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Although Don Carlo has been an opera often staged by the main opera houses in the world these days, few theatres could boast to cast it with such a starry group of singers as the Met, especially in the rarer Italian five act version. When the curtains open at the Fontaineblau’s scene, the Romantic Kaspar David Friedrich-like images sound promising indeed, despite some not entirely welcome coziness of atmosphere. However, the next scenes are bureaucratically staged and never did the auto-da-fé look so comfortable to look at – maybe Republican sensibilities would rather avoid the burning of the heathen in front of the audience… The sense of routine would not be improved by Fabio Luisi’s highly irregular conducting. He showed slack control over his forces: the orchestral phrasing was often imprecise and most ensembles sounded disjointed. The auto-da-fé was also from the musical point of view a non event – undisciplined choir and brass section would not help him anyway. Acts IV and V showed a noticeable improvement, also because the singers seemed to reach their best form then.

Although Sondra Radvanovsky’s firm creamy soprano has some artifficialites in order to make for a certain  immaturity in this repertoire, she more than measured up to the big moments, especially a vocally immaculate act V, crowned by unforgettably sunlit pianissimo singing. The same cannot unfortunately be said of Violeta Urmana’s Eboli. Of course this favourite singer displayed her customary musicianship and rock-solid technique, proving to have one of the most perfectly homogeneous mezzos ever to appear in this repertoire. However, the kind of vocal upfront impact required by Verdian writing is incompatible to her vocalisation and the results were a bit dull. Her two arias were too calculated to produce the right effect, although on stage her charisma and star attitude often overshadowed Radvanosky’s more generalized acting.

Richard Margison’s tenor is natural and quite pleasant, but he seemed to be short of top notes that evening, having to resort to some forcing and squeezing to get up there. His looks were not one would call physique du rôle, but his unexaggeration is more than welcome. As to Dwayne Croft, his baritone developed to be smoother and darker than it used to be and he sang with consistent legato throughout. It is a pity that his “macho” acting is so unintentionally comic that it made me think of Monthy Python movies. Although Ferruccio Furlanetto’s voice is not as rounded and smooth as it used to be in Karajan’s days, he is still a commanding Filippo, offering crusty delivery of the text and producing consistently firm tone. His sensitive rendition of his great aria is still exemplary in its dramatic accuracy. As for Paata Burchuladze’s Inquisitore, yes, it is a very powerful voice, but quite wobbly and his Italian is incomprehensible. Finally, Vitalij Kowaljow, taking the role of the friar, is a name to keep and Olga Makarina has the right pearly tone for the Voice from Heaven.

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