Archive for November, 2021

If we were to draw a timeline of history of opera in performance, the premiere of Handel’s Alcina at the Opéra de Paris in 1999 in Robert Carsen’s production could arguably figure as the moment important opera houses claimed baroque titles back to their repertoires. Of course we could mention that way before that Joan Sutherland appeared as Alcina at La Fenice etc. However, I would insist that the Carsen Alcina was more than as a vehicle for a prima donna but rather as a serious entry in the season, cast from the A-team in defiance of any idea of “specialist” singers. Since then, we’ve seen titles like Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda everywhere, at the Met, at the Vienna State Opera, in Salzburg. 

That is why I was curious to see the revival of a staging I only knew from a curious pirate tape on YouTube. It still holds its own quite well in its efficient Personenregie, timeless sets and costumes and intelligent lighting, but it looks a tad conservative these days after we’ve seen, say, Kate Mitchell in Aix (here Ruggero is horrified when he discovers that Alcina, Heaven forbids!, has sex with other guys). 

I remember my disappointment when I read that Renée Fleming was the soprano featured in the original run of performances back in 1999 .  When I first listened to the CDs, my first impression was “actually, that’s not bad” and, probably with Bychkov’s Daphne, this remains my favorite complete opera recording with the American diva. This evening, our Alcina too comes from the other side of the Atlantic, more specifically from Trinidad and Tobago. Jeanine De Bique is a singer I’ve seen only once in Salzburg as Annio in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, a part normally cast with a mezzo soprano. Then she was all over the internet singing stuff ranging from Mozart’s Susanna to Handel’s Rodelinda (the latter released on video). Ms. De Bique has a complex voice, rather dark in color yet kept in a rather tight focus. Differently from Fleming, who made Handel her way, the Trinidadian soprano is ready to sacrifice anything to Handel – and I wonder if that is the reason why she sounds so proper and well-behaved in a role that requires something overwhelming and a bit crazy. If I had not heard her broadcast from Berlin as Agathe in Weber’s Freischütz I would have said she is indeed a mezzo in soprano repertoire, for she fared really, I mean REALLY carefully in her high register. She either took refuge in mezza voce (which she does well) or would produce bottled up sounds à la Barbara Hendricks – and I was dying to see her throw protocol to the air and really show us what she’s got, at least when things get out of control for Alcina. But no. She seemed determined to produce a “baroque” voice. Whatever that might be, it does not come naturally to her – and, as much as she deserves praise for trying so hard, nothing works better than being oneself. The tightrope she walked on the whole night meant a little bit less projection than she needed and also a little bit less legato than she needed. A more idiomatic Italian would have also helped her to put across an all-round theatrical performance. As it was, she just never did anything wrong. Even her stage presence seemed a sequence of poses – and somehow we know that there is an Alcina there ready to bloom. In any case, hers was a stylish, elegant performance, clear divisions, long breath, pianissimi all there, check. 

In the original production, Natalie Dessay almost (some would say “totally) stole the show as Morgana, and I must say Sabine Devieilhe is brave to appear in that role in this production. The comparison is inevitable, and it still is advantageous to Dessay, whose voice was a bit richer in the middle register and a bit more crystalline in its in alts. That said, Ms. Devieilhe is very much at ease in the role and is more than technically adept for it. She seemed determined to do everything a bit differently from Dessay, both in terms of acting and singing (especially in terms of decoration, an item in which Dessay tended to be overadventurous). Devieilhe has one trump card, though – her diction is clearer than Dessay’s and she is less mannered too. 

Ruggero is different from all other primo uomo roles in Handel operas, and I won’t be truly capable of explaining why. It just requires a more Mozartian approach – and baroque specialists always sound a bit pale in it. Gaēlle Arquez is exactly the kind of singer for the part. Hers is a juicy, velvety, round, trouble-free voice that makes everything sound cantabile and spontaneous. I believe her voice is gaining in strength and Handel won’t probably be too long in her repertoire. As it was, she took some time to warm. Di te mi rido came at moments dangerously close to imprecision and items like Verdi prati sounded a tad low for her voice. She delivered a truly classy, sensitive Mi lusinga il dolce affetto and sang Stà nell’Ircana in the grand manner. As Bradamante, Roxana Constantinescu did not have a chance. A mezzo in a contralto part, she sounded lost around her passaggio, grey and grainy of tone. 

If I had not seen Michael Spyres sing Theodora last week, I would have said Rupert Charlesworrh was the best Oronte one could get. We’re talking about one of the less well cast parts in the whole repertoire, even in studio recordings. Mr Charlesworth, for a change, doesn’t sound as if he were going to die out of singing this music. He has the notes, the flexibility and a long breath, but the tonal quality – as usual – is the opposite of appealing. Nicolas Courjal’s bass is  on the woolly side, and yet he managed his aria well.

If I have to single out one element in this performance, this would be Thomas Hengelbrock’s vital, alert conducting. Both in terms of tempo and accent, we’ve always heard the ideal compromise between musical and dramatic demands, without any neglect for his singers. His orchestra, the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, played with richness of sound and fullness of tone, the continuo extravagantly shared between harpsichord, organ, harp and theorbos. 

As expected, there were cuts – no Oberto, Oronte’s Semplicetto reduced to the A section, some trimming in recitatives and no final chorus (I guess the idea was to make a dark ending for the opera). 


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Otello is a story I seriously wouldn’t know how to tell these days. Who wants to see a blackface to explain why the guy acts irrationally? Or the blond wig to show that the girl has no brain? Anyway, I see why that director Mario Martone felt he needed to update the action even for an audience used to see this story told the traditional way. In a sense, he deserves praise for all the thought he put in the characterization of Desdemona . At the Deutsche Oper, Andreas Kriegenburg too stated it a contemporary military camp with refugees etc, but in the middle of all that there was this lady in high heels behaving as if she were in a 17th century play. Mr. Martone opted to show Desdemona as a military doctor, and that’s clever in many levels. We understand why everybody likes her, why she is seen as a good person and so respected by everyone, why she submits to Otello so readily (chain of command…) and why she insists with the whole Cassio thing (they are co-workers and she was present when the whole confusion took place in act 1). There were still loose ends, and the director solved them by showing Desdemona as someone with spirit. All her little girl things are sung as if it the whole ladylike attitude was a private joke between husband and wife and also between her and Emilia. 

There is one very important thing that doesn’t make any sense: her disposition to endure all that. We live in age in which domestic violence is well documented, and it basically doesn’t happen as shown in this staging. We have a Desdemona who carries a gun and knows how to use it. So she must have decided that she wants to be there. Being a doctor, she must have recognized that there is something wrong with Otello and, of course, she has to help him. She must be his last chance. Without her, he is lost. That’s a story I would believe if Otello looked disturbed at all. But our Otello behaved as if his foreignness meant that he was a guy from Munich having great food and weather in Naples. In the end, he did look very sad and the closing scene was touching, but Otello has to be a very disturbed guy from the start, one you wouldn’t feel comfortable to be around. He is worse than the enemy, but he’s fighting for us. 
Of course, Jonas Kaufmann sang well. He always does. He is probably the most musicianly singer you’ll ever find in this role, and Verdi would even need to wrote pppp to get a pp if he knew Kaufmann one day would sing the part. The problem was rather on the other side of the dynamic range. That was not a matter of being heard – he was very hearable – but when you hear all famous Otellos (even Domingo), there is some reserve of power for the moments when Otello really freaks out. You have to understand that there is something barely in control there. With his darkened tonal color, Kaufmann’s volume button has two stations: mezza voce and forte. Everything louder than forte are different shades of forte. 

In that sense, the comparison with Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko was telling. His was no golden age gigantic Verdi baritone, but he could conjure a Slavic Leiferkus-like edge when he needed to shift to the fifth gear. His Jago was the most compelling presence on stage – he was competent with his word-pointing and has natural acting talent. The way he ran away in his last scene was unusually convincing. It felt as if he would keep running across Via Chiaia. 
This is the first time I hear Maria Agresta live, and I was both positively and negatively surprised. As many Italian lyric sopranos with a sizable voice, she must have felt that she has to sing lirico spinto roles – and this involves a lot of adaptations. As she now sounds, the tonal quality is no longer noble, but rather labored and the exposed high notes feel makes us remember that spinto means “pushed”, legato being the main victim here. Only in the last act, one could feel the purely lyric quality of her voice, and she floated high pianissimo at will. I can’t help thinking she should always sing like that, especially in a role that goes well for a lyric soprano full stop. 

This was my first opera in Naples and I don’t know how the orchestra and the acoustics are, but I had the clear impression that the conductor Michele Mariotti chose to rein in his orchestra. It showed very little color and sounded rather dim, especially in the more dramatic moments (when his singers really appreciated the help).  Maybe I’ve heard too many Karajan and Muti recordings, but it fell like the chamber version and the whole performance left me cold. The could say that this meant some gain in clarity, but I don’t think that the trade-off was worth it. At all. Last but not least, there was some really vigorous, healthy choral singing this evening.

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Theodora is probably Handel’s gloomiest work, curiously said to be the composer’s favorite among his oratorios. It was not well received by the audience in its premiere run of only three performances. I would say it is a work that still has something important to tell: that the reward for good actions is nothing but knowing that you are on the right side. And that’s fair enough.

Because of its dramatic structure with well-defined characters and a consequent plot, it has been reinvented as a stage work since some decades ago, as we can see in the videos from Glyndebourne, Salzburg and Paris. This evening at La Scala, however, it was performed as Handel intended –  in concert. Yet the soloists were so convincing in their facial expression and few gestures that few eyes were dry in the auditorium by the final chorus. 

At first, one had the impression this would be one of these barock’n’roll period-instrument performances. The overture hustled, the strings fizzed, conductor Maxim Emelyanychev bounced manically at his harpsichord. In La Scala dry acoustics, the orchestra had a hint of scrawniness. For someone used to William Christie’s performances, the sound lacked a bit substance. However, we would soon discover that Il Pomo d’Oro is indeed capable of warmth for the more intimate numbers, even if some of them – like Angels, bright and fair – could have done with a tiny little bit more repose. The chorus sang with dexterity and, even if every voice had a distinctive sound (tenors especially), they blended well in ensemble and sang in very acceptable English. It is a long work, and after a while, one felt grateful for the Mr. Emelyanychev’s inclination for fireworks – his musicians seem to relish the challenge of fast passagework and, allied with his soloists’ theatricality, the performance gained in expressive power. In terms of intensity, this score has rather a M than a W development, and this evening the shift to the rather depressive ending was well managed.

With an almost all-American cast that looked like something you’d find in a Donizetti opera, this concert proved to be a fascinating experience. This is not Lisette Oropesa’s first Handel, and she has the technique and a generic sense of style for it. She sang with clarity of diction, beautiful round notes, excellent trills and floated beautiful mezza voce. However, her voice has a manicured middle register that sounds a bit puffed up in this repertoire. When we read about the first Theodora, Italian soprano Giulia Frasi, we learn that she was someone whose secret weapons were the absolute naturalness of her voice and the emotional sincerity. Listening to Christie’s CDs, I can’t help thinking Sophie Daneman comes closer to that description. On the other hand, Ms. Oropesa brings something a little bit more tragic and grander to the part. I don’t know if it needs it – and a gentler approach to low notes would have helped to create more readily an illusion of innocence and vulnerability. 

The part of Irene will be forever spoiled for me by Lorraine Hunt in the video from Glyndebourne. One feels a powerful and immediate spiritual  connection with the late American mezzo soprano in a way we don’t with Joyce DiDonato, who seems more studied and diva-ish in it. That said, she is probably the second best Irene I have ever heard. She really dives deep in the text and notes and truly shares her thoughts, ideas and occasionally emotions with the audience. To be honest, her manner fits the role, who sometimes feel like a narrator to this story. For some often accused of being a short soprano, she sounded very comfortable with her low register.

Accents can be charming, but Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian’s in the role of Didymus was sometimes too evident to be just a perfume. Singers in Handel’s oratorios tend to be very specific about their diction and tone colouring, and I’m afraid Mr. Bénos-Dijon sounded too all-purpose in that department. His countertenor has an attractive smoky color and one barely feels a break into his low notes and it projects well too.  He also has a peculiar habit of sliding into notes – maybe for expressive purpose – that sometimes obscures perfect intonation. 

Michael Spyres as Septimius offered some of the best Handelian tenor singing I have ever heard. It was a revelation to hear a voice so healthy, tonally consistent (rich low register, solid passaggio and bright high notes), flexible and clear in diction in this repertoire. 

John Chest did sing well as Valens, his coloratura is reliable and forceful, but he was in double disadvantage in a role impossibly low-lying for his voice, what also made his the voice with less presence in this cast. 

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In order to celebrate their 15th anniversary, the J.S Bach-Stiftung, St Gallen, has launched a mini-tour through Basel and Zurich with a solo-cantata-only program, probably for practical reasons. These are some of Bach’s best loved items for a solo voice (the missing item among the top 4 would be the BWV 51), all of them richly preserved in recordings with distinguished singers. Catalan soprano Nuria Rial has a cult status among lovers of baroque music and her participation in Bach-Stiftung’s concerts was a sign that the project, which had started almost too discreetly, gained international appreciation. Ms. Rial is arguably the best Bach soprano of our days – and it is only fitting that she was chosen for these concerts, together with Swiss bass Manuel Walser.

Before the concert, we were informed that the ensemble’s oboist fell ill with COVID and that a replacement could only be found in the very last minute. As we’re thankful for the intrepid musician who saved the day, this was most unfortunate, for the oboe is in fact the second soloist in every one of the items in the program. I first had the impression that Ms. Rial too was not well in the BWV 199, Mein Herzen schwimmt in Blut. Her voice sounded strangely devoid of color and projection, she had a touch-and-go approach with her high notes and she sounded almost soubrettish in an item that demands some depth of interpretation. I have the impression that it also sits a bit low in her voice. Although there was nothing wrong in terms of style, it felt a bit superficial. I have to say that the mini harpsichord interludes played by conductor Rudolf Lutz did not work for my taste, rather dispelling the mood than adding anything in terms of atmosphere: here we must follow the spiritual development from extreme desperation to extreme joy as an interrupted continuum. This evening, the first part lacked a sense of affliction and world-weariness and it basically hanged fire. When the soprano showed up for the Wedding Canatata (BWV 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten), she seemed like an entirely different person. Not only did she exude a joy of music making absent in the first item, but her voice finally displayed its famous bell-toned quality and the almost pop-like spontaneity which is the hallmark of her singing. The coloratura was handled with flair and charm and she produced beautiful long sounds on the word Ruh‘ in the opening number, expertly spinning the note and introducing a delicate vibrato by the end. She and Maestro Lutz chose a very peculiar angle for the cantata – it did not felt like a church or even a concert performance, but rather as the merry music making in an actual wedding ceremony. One could feel an increasing sense of cheerfulness and animation, the wine and the dance making their way in the spirit of the guests in this imaginary part. Soprano and conductor did not seem to believe that Bach really thought that the bride and groom were really paying attention to the wise words in the text – Ms. Rial “acted with her voice” as if she raised her eyebrows thinking “enjoy it while it lasts…”. The final gavotte was played as a rustic dance, no room left for subtlety at that point. If one compares this concert with Philippe Pierlot’s more poised and elegant recording, this was an interesting opportunity to see Ms. Rial (and Mr. Lutz) exploring new possibilities. After all, the BWV 202 is no church cantata.

The BWV 82 was probably the all-round most successful item in the program. The small ensemble played warmly, in a tempo that moved ahead without unnecessary haste. For someone used to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Klaus Mertens, Mr. Walser’s tone seemed at first excessively covered, running dangerously close to woolliness in his high notes. Once you got used to it, it suggested an avuncular gentleness that goes well with the cantata’s text. He is a very expressive singer, who clearly tried to milk every molecule of meaning of text and notes, but sometimes could do a bit less to avoid the occasional impression of histrionics. In the famous aria Schlummert ein, the conductor required a very restricted dynamic palette for the repeat (something like pppp-pp) that Mr. Walser sustained with absolute adeptness. He also handled the melisme in the last item with precision and clarity.

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Although Philippe Herreweghe is a conductor mostly associated with the music of Bach, together with his Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, he has built a small but significant Mozartian discography, the most famous item probably being his recording of the Mass K 427 with Christiane Oelze and Jennifer Larmore. This is one of my favorite pieces of sacred music by Mozart and for a while, I fancied the idea of having every performance committed to disc, and Herreweghe’s was one of them. Even if it is hard to fault, it never was a favorite of mine. I used to find the sopranos mismatched – not a small detail – and decided not to listen to it again before the concert this evening. I could have listened to it afterwards, but I won’t – this concert has a merit of its own and does not require comparisons.

In any case, the Mass 427 was only the second item in the program, which started with an urgent account of the Symphony no. 40 (K 550), which is one of Mozart works where “opera” is a word we don’t use only because there are no singers and no libretto. The rest is all there. I am still getting used to the acoustics in the Tonhalle, which are warm and resonant, not necessarily an advantage with pieces where the texture is a little bit more complex. On the plus side, the strings of the Orchestre de Champs-Elysées filled the hall with a warm glow not always associated with period instruments. There was a slight minus side to it though – in Herreweghe’s fast tempi, passagework was not always clear, even if we could hear that these musicians produced clear enough divisions. Once you adjusted to the sound, one thing was clear: although polish was there, it clearly was not the conductor’s main purpose with this performance, which was drama. His tempi kept his musicians and the audience at their seat’s edge, deserving enthusiastic applause as rarely seen in Zurich.

There is more than splash of opera in the Mass 427 too – it was not intended for any particular church performance, but rather as a some sort of display of Mozart’s new Viennese-ishness in a visit to his hometown, what included the virtuosistic writing for the soprano voice, sung in its partial première by his then fiancée, Constanze Weber. There are frankly operatic recordings of this work – Louis Langrée’s with Natalie Dessay and Véronique Gens particularly Don Giovanni-esque – but this evening Herreweghe found the perfect balance between the theatrical atmosphere of the work and its religious nature. Nothing was heavily underlines, the performance moved along – in fast tempi yet – but with a sense of dignity and concentration that did the trick. The main element of this performance – and probably what made it really memorable – was the singing of the Collegium Vocale Gent. Rarely have I heard a choir whose sections – 8 per voice – were so perfectly balanced. The harmonic clarity in the choral singing was so outstanding that I could discover new beauties in a score I know and love. Bravi. That does not mean that I find fault in the orchestra, which embraced the choral singing in the same warm sonorities we could hear in the first part of the program.

I don’t intend to say that the soloists were below the level of these forces, but the truth is that a performance like that requires soloists who could add their own piece of warmth to the proceedings, someone like Lucia Popp in her singing of the soprano 1 part for Rafael Kubelik. Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann is a charming bell-toned Mozartian with immaculate coloratura and perfect trills who however dispatched her lines rather with clockmaker precision than with the spiritual generosity of someone like Popp or the legato of a Barbara Bonney or the radiance of an Arleen Augér. Her phrasing was sometimes too square for my taste – even if one must point out that the conductor gave her very little time to breathe in Et incarnatus est. She was indeed well matched to German mezzo soprano Sophie Harmsen, whose coloratura left nothing to be desired and handled her high notes with absolute tranquility. Her pellucid tone was well contrasted to Ms. Mühlemann’s silver, but both lacked a bit volume, especially in their middle and low registers. Mozart was not very kind to tenor and bass here, and it is rare to find someone worthy of mention. Today is no exception.

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In the comments section of my text about the Grand Théâtre de Genève’s new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Peter brought about Maria Callas’s 1958 performance in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Royal Opera House. He made me curious, and  I spent the last three days listening to it. Although this is an opera I’m never really inclined to see, I had a free weekend and the Theater Basel was staging an eurotrash production by German director Benedikt von Peter. So Idecided to give it a chance. If there’s a work in the repertoire that seriously need a fresh perspective, this is it.  

As staged by Mr. von Peter, La Traviata is a monodrama with off stage voices. There is a single person on stage, Violetta, in her death moments reminiscing. There is nothing new in this non temporal approach – the fact that the first and the last act start with preludes based on the same opening theme has given many a director this idea (Peter Mussbach at the Lindenoper, for example), but at least in my experience, not as radical as having everyone else sing from the balcony in the dark. 

There are practical issues in that choice. First it requires a singer with lots of stamina to remain on stage during the whole opera (without interval), doing lots of unnecessary movements just to prevent the audience from falling asleep. That includes pretending to be doing things with imaginary people and objects, panting a lot to fill in the blanks, also because there are lots – I mean LOTS – of unwritten silences. This was probably the lowest-budget Traviata I have ever seen – and it also looked painfully cheap. Reading this, you might believe this was totally ineffective. That’s not true – in her training pants and drug highs, this Violetta Valéry could be a girl we read about in newspapers. “Found dead” or something like that. But the way Mr von Peter shows us that girl – never acting like a normal person, contorting herself, crawling, busy as a bee arranging the very few props available – makes her so distant from us that one is inclined to miss Zeffirelli, because his Personenregie looks more realistic, I’m afraid.

Nicole Chevalier is a singer I’ve always seen in difficult roles – the three soprano parts in Les Contes d’Hofmann, Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo. It never occurred to me that I would see her as a Violetta, because she does not have the voice for it. However, I can’t think of many singers who would be inclined to do everything the director asks from her here: the staging has moments many singers would find undignified (like reaching into her panties to grab money bills and throwing them at the audience), but more than that, it’s physically exhausting. For instance, she jumps and bounces a lot before she sings her big act 1 aria. From the purely vocal point of view, Ms. Chevalier’s soprano is light for the role. It lacks substance in both middle and low registers and she manages most of her high lying passages on mezza voce, which she does very well (and the trills too). Also, she has very easy high notes. When she really has to go big, then her unitalianate tonal quality is evident. The voice sounds colorless and lacks projection, unless the acuto is really congenial. In these moments, her coloratura can be smeared. That said, she is more musicianly than the average Violetta, with an almost Mozartian take on phrasing and, if her Italian were idiomatic, she could have been truly expressive rather than elegant and concerned. As I had Callas’s London 1958 performance in my mind, I can see that the light-touched approach is probably the safest one and it does work if the singer has a bright edge to her sound for the most exposed moments (as Callas had, and Ms Chevalier does not). Considering the theatre’s size, her acting abilities and the way she had things in control within her vocal possibilities, she deserves praise for this tour de force.

Her Alfredo, Arthur Espiritu is the kind of tenor who’s there for his high notes. His first octave is nasal and grainy, but everything above a high f is full and vibrant if constantly preceded by scooping and often ended with a glottal release. When he softens the tone – for expressive effects – one can see that free of manipulation his voice is naturally beautiful. Without the help of a stage presence, he worked hard to suggest dramatic engagement, what proved to be particularly helpful by the end of the opera. I had seen Noel Bouley only once as Falstaff at the Deutsche Oper Berlin some years ago and wasn’t prepared for his unsubtle, large-vibrato-ish singing this evening. Someone unaware of the plot would think Germont, père, a particularly angry person. He and the maestro did not seem to agree much in terms of beat either.

I have to praise Tito Ceccherini for his sensitive conducting of the score. There was ideal balance between woodwind and the strings, every nicety in this abused score lovingly shown to the audience in a performance free of vulgarity and sentimentality. Only in Amami, Alfredo there was a clear misfiring in building momentum, but that happens unfortunately more often than one wished. Although the house orchestra – on stage and upstage behind a semi-transparent screen this evening – is not world-class, they did a very efficient job this evening – and the chorus sang very well too.

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Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is an opera I did not really care about until probably last week. I had only seen it once in a visit of the Vienna State Opera to Tokyo with Edita Gruberová, Sonia Ganassi and Luca Pisaroni. The starry cast did not make me warm to the work back then. I remember I did not find Donizetti at his most melodically inspired until the closing scene, which, yes, it is one of bel canto’s most impressive passages. That is why I was so surprised to realize how much I enjoyed listening to three and a half recordings of it since last Monday. 

First of all, when you understand that this is technically not a prima donna vehicle,  the story becomes really more interesting. From one side, we do have Anne Boleyn doomed from the start, not only because the King has already decided he wants to get rid of her, but mainly because she wants to get rid of herself. She is really sick of the whole thing and is increasingly living in her own private world, a mix of memories and fantasies. And there is Jane Seymour, confronted with a very big moral issue: what if getting what you want means the ruin of someone else? She fights against her remorse with all her strength – but she cannot win, because her desire of having what Anne has is really stronger than her sense of guilt. 

Musically, what makes this opera so effective it is exactly what made it difficult for me to like it in the first place: it just moves forward with little consideration for Bellinian long, elegiac melodies. Characters express their feelings almost objectively and bluntly and it’s all about dramatic confrontations in ensembles richer in texture than what they get credit for. I am not a Callas person, but I decided to start with her La Scala recording, and it would have alone convinced me she was a very great singer. She establishes electric tension from her first note – this is not exquisite sculpted phrasing (Leyla Gencer offers something more classically bel canto-ish, for instance). There is a touch of vinegar now and then and high notes can wobble, but you can sense in her every sound that this woman is reaching her last hour in this planet. I had a friend who found the sequence of trills in Coppia iniqua as sung by Callas an example of superior artistry. Yes, when you listen to the whole performance, the way she manages that formidable phrase proves that the whole score was bound to that gran finale, like something inevitably rolling over to its final destination. The libretto’s Boleyn couldn’t live as a queen anymore, but she was determined to die as one. 

Anna Bolena had never been staged in Geneva before, and its première at the Grand Théâtre happens in the context of the complete “trilogy” of Donizetti’s Tudor queens to be staged, conducted and mostly sung by the same team. Director Mariame Clément decided it should not be told as a historic play or even in the context of the discussion about women and power, but simply like the story of one person who happened to be a woman and who lived in very unique circumstances: Queen Elizabeth I, here a silent role appearing as a young girl (older than she actually was when Boleyn died) and as the old monarch thinking about her mother’s fate. A French reviewer considered that Ms. Clément made a soap opera out of Donizetti’s tragedy. Yes – that’s what usually happens when you tell the lives of gods and kings as a family story. And that’s not necessarily bad per se. Ms. Clément’s genius touch is using the child (Elizabeth) too explain many of the libretto’s less believable twists. For instance, here Anne already knows that Jane Seymour is her rival when the latter appears in her apartments to convince the queen to plead guilty, pretending ignorance with the purpose of watching the young woman’s anguish. Only when Elizabeth enters and Anne realizes that her daughter’s welfare will depend on the new queen’s mercy she changes her tone and makes the decision to forgive.

It is true, however, that the director’s Personenregie has a splash of shallowness and strongly depends on Julia Hansen’s stage and costume design to produce any impact. That said, most of Ms. Hansen’s choices seem purely guided by chicness. The revolving sets show cyan boiseries the panels of which removed for us to see backdrops depicting woodland. It is all very beautiful, but what this is supposed to mean eludes me entirely. Costumes are stylized, and we see a blond Anne in green and a brunette Jane in red much as we’ve seen Deneuve and Ardant in the same colors as wife and mistress in François Ozon’s Eight Women. 

To say that conductor Stefano Montanari was extremely kind with his singers is an understatement. Whenever anyone was singing, the orchestra was reduced to a dimness of sound that almost made us believe that they were playing from backstage. He also chose tempi that make soloists comfortable with the demands of legato and coloratura, what is good, but his accents were so often flaccid that the opera sounded drained of all dramatic possibility. It all seemed very polite – and the awkward idea of using a fortepiano for effects made it even more Biedermeier. In those circumstances, one could believe that the whole drama depicted there was that the pudding ended up overcooked. And that cannot happen – at all – in Donizetti, a composer whose writing does not do the trick by itself. 

I don’t know if the conductor’s decision – I’m not inclined to believe that but anyway… – of making things so coy and cozy have to do with the singers available. Anna Bolena’s first performances in Milan in 1830 had one of the starriest casts in the history of opera – Pasta sang the title role and Rubini appeared as Percy, to start with. French soprano Elsa Dreisig’s blond soprano brings to bel canto her large scale Mozart voice with a Janowitz lisp to remind us that her name is showing us what kind of repertoire she was born to sing: German roles. By saying that I don’t mean she sang poorly this afternoon. On the contrary, her performance was praiseworthy in many levels. The voice itself is healthy, full in all registers, slightly instrumental in quality, very flexible and used with good taste and complete musicianship. She tackled her runs precisely, managed most trills, produced clear vowels and even ventured into one short in alt puntatura. I was surprised by how effectively she handled the filigree in Coppia iniqua – forcefully and in the right flowing tempo. All that said, I can’t say say she truly understands what bel canto means when we refer to the way a singer such as Pasta – and later Callas or Scotto – sang. I mean the art of using dynamic, rhythm, coloring, attack, breathing, diction to give life TO THE TEXT. Exquisitely as Ms. Dreisig sang Al dolce guidami, it sounded ultimately plain in its absence of reverie, nuance, chiaroscuro and, most importantly, float. All those qualities are the boards on the bridge that spans across the chasm between “sad” and “tragic”.

The first Giovanna Seymour was a singer whose death at the age of 23 meant the end of an outstanding career: Elisa Orlandi. Ms. Orlandi first sang contralto roles but ended up singing parts as high as Zenobia in Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira until she collapsed and passed away on stage during rehearsals of her first Adalgisa in 1834. In other words, a part written for Ms. Orlandi is not really a mezzo part. For instance, Giulia Grisi, the first Adalgisa and Elvira (I Puritani), appeared as Seymour (with Pasta).  Even if the discography shows us only mezzos in the part – Simionato and Verrett, most notably – Donizetti requires someone with a really solid high register (as Simionato and Verrett) – sometimes giving the part of Seymour the upper line in ensembles over that of Bolena. Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s voice does not fit that description: her extreme high notes may sound tense or a tiny bit below true pitch. It is also too smoky and her vowels too dark for bel canto. And yet she is a terrific actress and sings with undeniable dramatic commitment and energy. I don’t think someone who could only listen to her performance this afternoon would find it particularly convincing, but the whole package was attractive enough. Even if it’s not a classically “beautiful” voice, it calls attention in its unusual color, she can muster some power for exposed moments and tackles fioriture in an exciting rather than refined way. 

In the Rubini role, Uruguayan tenor Edgardo Rocha is better cast that most singers in the discography (Jerry Hadley, for instance). It is a voice built around its high notes (he adds in alts whenever he can, except in the last note of any aria) and sings in Italianate style without exaggeration, clearly with Juan Diego Flórez as a model. This also means that the tone has more than one splash of nasality, what seems to be the rule in this repertoire. 

The role of Enrico was first sung by another very special singer, Filippo Galli, who first started as a tenor and then premiered some of Rossini’s most difficult buffo roles, such as the Mustafà in L’Italiana in Algeri. I can only believe that this is why singers in this part seldom are up to the task. To be honest, only Samuel Ramey in Bonynge’s recording sounds as vocally impressive as it requires. Alex Esposito was in double disadvantage here: first, being the shortest man on stage made him everything but commanding and, second, rich and forceful as his voice is, it is also a bit grayish in its upper reaches and some of his former flexibility is now lost. He had to snarl a lot to create some sense of menace, and finally was ill-paired to Ms. d’Oustrac’s intense Seymour.

Mezzo Lena Belkina sang forcefully as Smeton, her high notes rich and warm. She acted really well and looks convincingly boyish. Since I’ve heard Bernadette Manca di Nissa in this part, in Bonynge’s recording, it is difficult to hear anyone else, but that would be an unfair comparison, I guess. Last but not least, Stanislav Vorobyov, a last minute replacement for Michael Mofidian in the role of Rochefort, sang sensitively with a noble, gentle sounding bass voice. 

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