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Archive for March, 2018

Semiramide is Rossini’s most successful opera seria stravaganza, and this does not mean it is one of his most popular operas. First, it is long. Second, it is expensive in terms of production. Third, good luck casting it…! It is often staged to please the appetites of a bel canto diva, but the Met has history with it, glamorously opened with Patti and Melba. Many decades later, there was Marilyn Horne in the primo uomo role and the Met had less stellar sopranos such as Lella Cuberli and Christine Weidinger on the billboard. Of course, there was June Anderson for the video release. There, one can also see John Copley’s fantasy Assyria, the staging still in use in the present run of performances.

It is no coincidence that the one time I could see Semiramide (in concert performance) the prima donna was no other than Angela Meade. I had never seen (or heard) her before and was impressed by the roundness, volume and flexibility. Then the voice had a Margaret Price-ish quality now almost entirey lost. The “almost” is the key word here. Since then, I had seen Ms. Meade as Lucrezia Contarini and the Trovatore Leonora and noticed some tonal harshness that made her voice more formidable than pleasing. In a recent interview, she said that her voice was meant to sing Semiramide and, listening to her singing today, I agree with her. It has sounded almost as well as it did 9 years ago. Although the harshness is occasionally still there – and one could wish for a little bit more affection and cantabile – hearing that big voice sail through scales, roulades and all kind of difficult coloratura is truly exciting. Hers is not a flashing personality and, as much as last time, she makes the part convincing by adapting it to her personality. Here one believes she regrets the whole affair with Assur and the plot to kill her husband. There is a splash of Lucrezia Borgia (Victor Hugo’s, not the real one…) here in the sense of a lost soul desperately trying to be someone’s angel.

Elizabeth DeShong, in the role of Arsace, was one of this performance’s most shining features. When she first started singing, the words “Lucia Valentini-Terrani” came to my mind. This is a warm, fruity, charming voice, more comfortable in the contralto end of her mezzo, that produces Rossini fioriture to the manner born. She has very good Italian and delivers some of her lines chillingly. Her tonal quality, rhythmic precision and crispy textual delivery make her ideal in trouser roles, although the physique is not very convincing. I definitely want to hear more from Ms. DeShong.

To make things even more exciting, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena brought the house down with his dulcet tenor capable of supersonic coloratura and the firmest and brightest in alts in the market. Most tenors in this repertoire sound a bit whiny, but Mr. Camarena was convincingly heroic throughout. Bravo.

Ildar Abdrazakov is the Met’s resident Rossini basso. If his voice is a bit grainy, it is big enough and his coloratura is decent enough. Well, it is more than that, but I am trying not to compare him with Samuel Ramey. It would be unrealistic. Ryan Speedo Green was a powerful Oroe too. I wish, however, that the chorus could be half as good as the soloists.

Although the video shows some larger-than-life personalities, the revival is more believable in its intent of portraying these characters as people. Of course, it all looks museologic and clichéed, but that’s what this revival is about. Maurizio Benini’s conducting, reliable as it was, still made Rossini sound a bit museologic too. One expect to hear this repertoire with a little bit more spirit and energy these days.

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The revival of Patrice Chéreau’s production of R. Strauss’s Elektra is supposed to be the informal beginning of the Met’s new era. It features the house’s Brünnhilde-to-be, the new music director and even involves the debut of a German Kunstdiva to replace Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra. If it ultimately proved to be everything but exciting, let’s hope that the future is going to gain momentum at some point.

I had never seen Christine Goerke in the theatre before this evening and only knew her Elektra from a 2015 broadcast from Boston. As caught by the microphones, the voice sounded that of a mezzo soprano with an upper extension produced rather by will power than by nature. In any case, monochromatic and labored as it sounded, this seemed a plausible voice for the role. Some would have described famous Elektras from the past with words like these. Live at the theatre, it is a whole diferent story. First, it projects poorly. Other than in the lower reaches, it is hard to hear and the high notes are bottled up, fluttery and rattling. It must be mentioned that the extreme acuti, such as the high c’s fare better than most of the high g’s and a’s, although the amount of pressure involved is almost disturbing. Second, the tonal quality is greyish and variety is only achieved by means of distortion. Sometimes, a note starts off full but then a shrill, nasal quality creeps in as a vain attempt of producing a cutting edge. Third, although there are moments when one can see the potential of Straussian phrasing in more lyrical passages as long as they don’t climb up too far up from middle register, what one hears most of the time is a note squeezed in right after the one before.

Although Ms. Goerke is being marketed as the next hochdramatisch soprano, this is a voice that is not comfortable with either the high or the dramatic and, in its present fabricated state, it is hard to tell where its comfort zone is. In defense of Ms. Goerke, she did not look nervous, tired or desperate about anything she had to sing during the whole evening and her word pointing was apt and insightful. Even without the help of tonal variety, she was able to share some interesting ideas about her character and to suggest that Elektra was probably a young woman, what makes sense in the context of this staging. In terms of acting, her commitment is undeniable, but there were many moments when one had the impression she was repeating the Spielleiter’s blocking without fully understanding why. This made her Elektra unusually self-possessed and in control. There was nothing wild  in her acting, what made the final scene quite anticlimactic.

It must be said the new Spielleiter did not seem keen as the assistant to the late Mr. Chéreau on reproducing the director’s power of implying  a lot with very little. Today the stage looked busy and grandiloquent.

This evening Chrysothemis, South-African soprano Elza van den Heever sounded refreshingly bright in comparison to her Elektra, albeit in a glassy and green-toned way. She did not seem challenged by the high tessitura, but did not offer the kind of lyric expansion Straussian sopranos supply in the part’s key moments either. As much as Waltraud Meier, Michaela Schuster’s mezzo is not particularly rich in its lower register. She too sounded small-scaled in the Met’s large auditorium and her expressionistic take on the role looked out of context in this production. Alan Held’s Orest was two sizes larger than his colleagues, but his voice is rather on the rusty side these days and there is some lack of dramatic concentration, a problem shared by Jay Hunter Morris as Aegysth, who is still a bit at a loss with the German language. Among the smaller roles, Tichina Vaughan, a regular in German opera houses, could not help standing out with her spacious and firm low notes and clarity of purpose.

When it comes to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, it is hard to say much in the context of his lightweight cast. The orchestra had to be kept on tight rein and the conductor’s fondness for rounding off sharp angles made it all sound very polite and sanitized. When some punch was unavoidable, the orchestra seemed ill at ease and abrupt. If it is true that R. Strauss once said that a conductor should navigate this as if it had been written by Mozart,  let’s not forget that Mozart’s music written for Electra (in Idomeneo) is anything but pretty and light.

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Although my experience with Sonya Yoncheva began quite off the beaten track when she sang Rameau in a gala concert with Emmanuelle Haïm and the Concert d’Astrée, it has since then taken me to some of the most pedestrian corners of the repertoire. Although I do like more than a couple of moments in Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème, having to sit through a whole performance and dealing with carnival scenes is something of a challenge for me – a challenge I only take on when it means the opportunity to see a singer of special interest.

Ms. Yoncheva’s Violetta Valéry in Berlin was a performance musically and dramatically sophisticated if not truly emotionally sincere, and I felt curious to see what she would make of Mimì, a role incompatible to mannerism and intellectualization. My first surprise this evening involved the very sound of her voice. While her Violetta had a touch of Callas in its tanginess, the soft-edged yet bright quality of her Mimì has more than a splash of Mirella Freni, especially in the youthful forward and light sounds she consistently produced in her middle register. If she did not suggest the same degree of spontaneity and naturalness of Ms. Freni (who does anyway?), this Bulgarian soprano offered a performance immune to criticism in its balance of musical and theatrical values. She even manages to infuse some spirit in a character that tends to the silly goose.

Vocally, Ms. Yoncheva has no trouble projecting into the big hall and usually presided over ensembles without much effort. There is only one element that elicits concern: the fact that her high notes more often than not flap in a way that might suggest wobble in the future. Some may say it is the frequentation of heavy roles, but I am not sure. I just hope this is something she is willing to look into.

My second source of interest this evening was tenor Michael Fabiano, whom I had never seen before. Based on what I had read and seen on YouTube, I was expecting some sort of stentorian voice used rather crudely if quite healthily. And this was very inconsistent to my impression live in the theatre this evening. To start with, I had the impression that he was not in his best voice today. He had to work hard for his high notes, the high c in his aria a bit colorless and labored and a couple of other notes below true pitch.

The voice itself is quite different from what I expected too: it is not big and it is also pleasantly darker than in recordings. In order to give it an edge, he often resorts to nasalization in a way that robs it of naturalness and charm. Although his phrasing is not really flowing and somewhat emphatic, it is also clean and more varied in coloring than he usually is credited for. Curiously, it is not very Italianate, even if his Italian is very good.

Susanna Phillips’s Musetta too lacks Italian quality. Her blond soprano only sounds at ease in this music when the singer manages to Mozartian-ize it. When the writing requires the brighter edge that is the hallmark of a soprano born in Italy, she is either hard to listen or awkward. Although she has acquitted herself quite commendably with her character, I have the impression that this is not the kind of role close to her own personality and temper.

Lucas Meachum’s baritone has a warm velvety quality and, even if short in its lower reaches, is sizable enough. He is also funny without exaggeration, but the lifeless Italian is a drawback. David Pershall was a firm-toned Schaunard, and Matthew Rose was a reliable Colline who could do with a little bit more emotional engagement in his aria.

At first, I had the impression that conductor Marco Armiliato did not seem in good understanding with his cast. The orchestra was often too loud and the tempo seemed to be timed to highlight the kind of expressive phrasing only his prima donna seemed ready to deliver. Later, he would find various levels of success in adjusting the sounds on stage and in the pit. It must be noted, however, that the orchestra did sound richer and more distinctive than under many a more famous conductor visiting the Lincoln Center.

I had seen the Zeffirelli production only once 2005 maybe (Ruth Ann Swenson and Franco Lopardo) and it looked grander and more beautiful in my memory. This evening, only the scene when Mimì visits Marcello in the osteria caused an impression in me in its soft blue Monet-like palette.

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