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Archive for March, 2022

I don’t believe in intellectualized Verdi. At all. And by saying that I don’t mean that everybody has to think just like me. But I have to be honest, I have an angle. For me, the fun of watching a Verdi opera is the illusion of gutsiness produced by clockwork precision. Yes, it is exhausting for all involved – probably not the audience, who is supposed to be having the time of their lives jumping off their seats with volleys of drums and trumpets and parole sceniche like “sangue!” or “vendetta!”. This is not the way how I would describe this evening’s performance of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Opernhaus Zürich – and this has nothing to do with its being “good” or “bad”. It just wasn’t that.

First of all, conductor Nicola Luisotti must be praised for the quality of the orchestral sound. Rarely have I heard a performance of Italian opera in Zurich in which the orchestra sounded as rich and well balanced and, well, polished as this evening’s. This would have been an ideal approach for a Bellini opera, for instance – the singers too were well blended with the orchestra, which would adjust its dynamic levels to fit each soloist, not to mention that the pace rather than forward-moving was often col canto, even when the score and the plot really didn’t demand for any kind of caesura. The problem is that Verdi is rather like surfing a wave. If you don’t go with it, you’re just left behind. And there were many unsurfed waves this evening – we felt the emotion, the excitement swelling up and, oops, it was gone.

I believe that the staging has a lot to do with it, although this was not a bad staging at all. It was probably the best production by Barry Kosky I have ever seen. When he finally resorted to his slapstick Kosky-isms, it was the last 3 minutes of the show. So I guess it was ok. However, this is a staging essentially abstract. The director himself says “I didn’t want to show any blood”. Precisely. So it was like telling a fairy tale without fairies or a crime mystery without a crime. The single set showed an infinite dark corridor the multiple possibilities of which were explored by masterly use of lighting. And this was the affair of two characters – Macbeth and his wife. All other solo singers got to have a costume, but if one doesn’t knows his or her Shakespeare, one would have no idea of what these people were doing there. The chorus is largely left in the dark and far upstage, what made them sound sometimes a bit recessed in comparison with the other musical forces. In those moments, there could be some mismatch with the orchestra too. Also, many of the dramatic interactions that should inject some life in the way singers deliver their lines were replaced by a rather stylized Personenregie – Macbeth goes into some spasmodic, fidgety routines stage right while Lady Macbeth acts grands, raises her arms for an imaginary person stage left. At least with the present cast, there is no chemistry between these two people. They embrace like brother and sister. I mean, in order for this to truly work, you’d need two forces of nature to bring onstage everything that is visually and, most of all, spiritually missing.

I have to express my admiration for baritone George Petean. Although he has a congenial personality, he is no bête de scène. Nonetheless, here he truly went for it. I would dare to say that it worked so well because he probably worked so hard to embody the director’s vision. His solo scenes were the best moments of the opera. The congeniality about Mr. Petean goes beyond his persona – his is a truly pleasant voice, round and full and used with unfailing cantabile. I might have written that before, yet this evening he really ventured out of the safety zone and snarled most efficiently. The part is, however, a tad heavy for him, and the white fire approach involved some matte quality in his high notes when sang fortissimo. In any case, in an auditorium as small as Zurich, this was not a problem per se.

In order to achieve the right effect, however, Mr. Petean would have needed a different singer to the part of Lady Macbeth. Veronika Dzhioeva did not seem immerse in the director’s concept as Mr. Petean and seemed to inhabit an entirely different scenic world, that of stand-and-delivery. It is a difficult role even for an actress, but everything depends on it. You have to understand why Macbeth is so completely under her spell – and the answer is, of course, sex, but you would never think of that this evening. In terms of singing, there is a lot to praise in her Ms. Dzhioeva’s performance. If you closed your eyes, you would see more of Lady Macbeth than looking at her. She obviously know what the part needs – and tries to deliver it all. She puts a serious effort in the fioriture, tries all the trills, is not afraid of mezza voce, goes for the chesty low notes and can muster her strengths for the occasional exposed acuto. However, the part sounds heavy and high for her, big as her voice is. When the line insists in the upper part of the range, legato is largely gone, the tone acquires a forced, squillante quality and she needs a breath pause before the highest note in the phrase. At some point, she sounded tired. However, she somehow recovered for a not really subtle Una macchia, yet efficient in showing the degradation of the character’s mental health at that point.

This is the first time I hear Benjamin Bernheim in a full-bloodied Romantic part. We can understand why the French see in him the last hope of their national repertoire. His slightly reedy, tightly focused tenor is elegantly produced and he phrases with unfailing good taste and musicianship. The element of surprise for me is the way he managed the big Italianate high notes, because he is able to operate a very difficult balance of darkness and focus there. It’s not a Pavarotti-like ringing sound, but it’s big and firm and round and exciting. Bravo.

When allowed to show their faces, the chorus offered some fine singing too, especially in Patria oppressa, which sounded homogeneous and expressive without any sentimentality. Bravi. I could write something about the chorus of witches, but the truth is that it only works when you have an Italian chorus. And that’s something you cannot learn.

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When writing about Bach cantatas, one often wonders if we’re overcreative in our intent of finding the composer’s genius in every detail, but a work like the BWV 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, proves that it is all really there. Composed in Leipzig for the first Sunday after trinity in 1726, its theme is charity and and altruism as the way of godliness. 

The opening chorus is structurally complex yet very direct in its expression. It is essentially motet-like in its structure, with three sections each with its distinctive musical features, which naturally are based on the same musical ideas. The first third is about “breaking the bread together” – and commentators tend to see the way the material goes from one voice to the other as an aural image of the text. But most importantly, it starts with isolated notes, staccato that gradually become something richer both melodically and in terms of texture. In the central section (“dressing the naked”), the counterpoint is already dense enough, but it is only when get to the final part (“then shall thy light break forth”) that we reach full fugal mode. There is a powerful message in this: as God is everywhere in everything at all times, it is only when we connect and share that we can mirror Him. 

As the music is irresistible from the first bar, many a conductor try to milk the last ounce of expression from the first bar – Gardiner and Herreweghe, for instance. Even Koopman fills too much in the blanks with a theorbo continuo. Only Suzuki – with outstanding structurally clarity – makes we hear the silence which is going to be filled by the sharing and development of the musical material. In this evening’s performance in the Kirche Trogen, conductor Rudolf Lutz offered something very special. His opening chorus was a single statement from its initial paucity to full ensemble glory. There was an almost Mahlerian sense of climax by the end on the number that made clear what it means to share and to connect. A truly beautiful performance. 

In the alto aria, the singer is mirrored by the solo violin and the oboe as in image of men’s good deeds as a reflection of God’s greatness. It is a number of serene beauty that is better served by the contralto voice. In it, Gardiner has the edge by casting Wilke Te Brummelstroete, who sings it with a warm, fluffy, motherly tone. This evening, Delphine Galou sang it with absolute homogeneity and gentleness of touch, spinning long notes like a viola player, but her tone sounds surprisingly short in lower resonance these days. On the other hand, soprano Ulrike Hofbauer arguably offered the best account of the aria with recorder obligatto I have ever heard, the naturalness of her high notes and the unaffected way she put across the text praiseworthy. Matthias Helm is more baritone than bass and couldn’t offer the richness and gravitas of a Peter Kooy, but he too addressed the “congregation” with authority and has clear divisions too. In comparison, the French contralto sounded a little bit generic in her long recitative. 

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If I have to be honest, the title above is misleading. What the Opernhaus Zürich presented this evening is not Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade, but a (generous) selection of arias of Pergolesi’s opera L’Olimpiade plus the overture and the duet, entirely clean of recitatives, inserted in a documentary film about tenants in a retirement home by director David Marton and cinematographer Sonja Aufderklamm. You read it right. Originally, Mr. Marton had been hired to simply stage the opera as (more or less) written by Metastasio and composed by Pergolesi. However, the pandemic ruined those plans. Locked in his apartment in Budapest, the director thought of the situation of how the lockdown affected elderly people and had the idea of adapting the project in a way it maybe could finally come to life. God knows how, he convinced the Zurich Opera House of it, and yet the sudden decision of closing theatres full stop postponed the première of this chimera.

Even if the director himself acknowledges that the relation between the film and the opera is very thin, he believes that there are points in common that ultimately make sense. He is right and wrong at the same time. When the film starts, we see the residents reacting to Pergolesi’s music and saying what they imagine to be taking place in the opera and even propose a staging for a libretto they have no idea about. But that was it. After that, the proceedings develop into a regular documentary about those people’s lives – a good one, I must say – that jars with the spirit of Pergolesi’s music and Metastasio’s libretto. Frankly, the opera was a distraction to the film. One could see that those portraits won the attention of the audience in the way the opera seria only intermittently did. Would I have liked to see a regular production of the opera? Not directed by Mr. Marton. The tiny bits that looked like a staging were appalling. The costumes looked horrendous, the sets were scary and the direction itself writes the k in kitsch. One could sense how the singers felt embarrassed having to face an audience in those circumstances.

So let’s speak of the musical side of the performance. L’Olimpiade is often considered Pergolesi’s masterpiece – and it has been recorded even before the days of period instruments. Yet the reference recording is the album led by Alessandro de Marchi with Jennifer Rivera and Olga Pasychnik. While de Marchi relishes the variety of affetti in the score, Ottavio Dantone – maybe to match the atmosphere of the film – opted for an approach that tries to highlight the famed “nobility” of Pergolesi’s writing. As the selection preferred arias softer in feeling, the single moment when one missed some guts was the most famous number in the work – the aria Tu me da me dividi, made famous in a punk-rock recording with German soprano Simone Kermes. The orchestra La Scintilla felt at home in this music, sounding here at its warmest-toned.

What makes this performance a level above de Marchi’s is the glamorous cast here assembled, probably the best one could wish for in this opera. I had never heard Joëlle Harvey live before, but she did not take long to win me over in the role of Aristea. Hers is the kind of smooth-sounding soprano that almost seems pop-like in its naturalness – and she phrases with unfailing sensitivity and feeling for the text. Also, she masters the art of the bird-like coloratura the part insists on. Her soaring mezza voce is disarming, and she knows that. At some point, you feel like she is using it too often, but you don’t mind, for it’s truly lovely. I was curious if she could muster the punch for Tu me da me dividi, and, without much help from the conductor, she offered something acceptable (if predictably not bombastic as Kermes used to do). As Argene, Lauren Snouffer features a richer-toned voice, a bit constricted in her attempt to produce a baroque sound. Her diction could be a tad clearer too. Even if, at this point, Vivica Genaux’s high register is a bit worn, the role of Megacle fits her voice like a glove, the heroic coloratura handled with the usual aplomb. She was well contrasted to Anna Bonitatibus’s Licida, whose pellucid, flexible mezzo worked wonders in the opera’s most beautiful aria, Mentre dormi, amor fomenti. On paper, casting Delphine Galou as Alcandro is an extravagance. If she did sing well, the voice sounds increasingly modest for opera. Ensemble member Thomas Erlank offered a pleasant, round tenor in the part of Aminta, but Carlo Allemano sounded curiously throaty as Clistene.

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France is a country committed to tradition – some will say it lives in the past, but when we see the celebrations around Molière’s 400th birthday, with his opera omnia staged in the grand manner in a state owned theatre, I guess one understands the extent of this country’s soft power and its influence in the world in spite of everything you might say against it. I had that in mind when I left the Comédie Française after a performance of Le Misanthrope on my way to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to discover that the art of Mozartian singing is not lost – it is well alive in Paris, as everyone could hear in this evening’s performance of Così Fan Tutte with Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée. Even if it was satisfying in many levels, pride of place goes to the all-French cast – and I’ll speak about them first. 

Vannina Santoni is a name I had only read about until she stood in for Patricia Petibon as Mélisande last time I was in Paris. She sang with disarming beauty of tone and textual clarity, but I was not aware that she actually built her career around Mozart prima donna roles. While we are all mesmerized with singers who break the perilous part of Fiordiligi as a wild horse by showing us that they are on top of it even when it is too low or too high or too florid, I have a soft spot for sopranos who make it sound entirely singable, almost as if it wasn’t difficult at all. Ms. Santoni has the kind of voice we imagine in the part of the Countess Almaviva – creamy, homogeneous, keen on legato and mezza voce. She sings with affection for every little note in her part, as if her mission in life was sharing with the audience her love for this score rather than showing off any personal quality. While listening to her singing, one never thinks of how technically adept she is because it is never about making the music difficult. That said, the audience did notice how effortlessly she floated her pianissimi – and most of all, how she managed the last phrase in Per pietà with all the trills and just one single breath pause. 

Although it is also very hard to sing , the part of Dorabella seems to stimulate the stinginess of casting directors these days. Hearing Gaëlle Arquez in it showed us how the whole opera suffers when there isn’t an a-team Dorabella. Not only would Ms. Arquez blend her tone to that of her Fiordiligi to perfection even in high mezza voce, but she also sang her arias without any hint of effort in her juicy mezzo soprano. She too has a natural feeling for Mozartian singing – and her duets with Fiordiligi were some of the loveliest singing I have heard in a while. 

When it comes to Cyrille Dubois, all I can say is that no-one in the planet can claim to sing the part of Ferrando better than him. I often write that a tenor in the Mozart opera was “faultless” as a big compliment (it is indeed), but this evening we were miles ahead of that. Mr. Dubois sang his Un’aura amorosa like a pianist who presses the keys of his instrument without thinking if the sound is going to be there. His only concern was expression. His is not a heroic voice, but this did not prevent him from offering a truly satisfying account of Tradito, schernito, delivered in its full chiaroscuro of the joys and pains of love. 

I have seen Florian Sempey shine in buffo parts, and if I have a tiny observation about his Guglielmo is that he could have dealt with the “serious” moments of the role with a little bit more legato and roundness of tone. Other than this, he sang healthily throughout and at times showed that there is room in his vouce for development into heavier parts.

If Laurène Paternò’s soprano is clearly in the soubrette territory, that is apt for the part of Despina, although some could claim that singers like Cotrubas, Popp or Donath sang it. That, however, is secondary to the fact that Ms. Paternò not only has idiomatic Italian, but also masters the art of declamation of buffo parts, handling Da Ponte’s text with masterly precision. Laurent Naouri’s Italian vowels are not as clear as hers, but he shone nonetheless in his recitatives and scaled down to mezza voce comme il faut in the trio with the Fiordiligi and Dorabella.

At first, I was surprised by Emmannuelle Haïm’s relaxed approach to the score. Rather than making it fizzy and bubbly, she gave it all the time of the world – not in the Klempererian sense of the word, of course, bur rather that she let it breathe and work its effect. She has probably realized she has an exceptional cast to make it work. These singers not only were comfortable to round off their phrases with absolute poise; they could sing their ensembles with more than precision. They responded to each other in true spirit of chamber music. I mean no criticism to the Concert d’Astrée, but this approach ideally required a different orchestra, one the violins of which could offer glittering passagework, the flutes of which could actually be heard in full orchestral sound and whose French horns were a little bit smoother. I am sure the broadcast will show something better balanced that what we heard live. I am not sure how the chorus is going to seem. In the hall, it sounded undernourished and weak in the tenor and bass departments. I must add that the continuo was praiseworthy, even the fortepiano small intrusions in the numbers judicious.

When I saw Christof Loy’s “Sofiensaal” Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg, I found it a lame excuse for a director unwilling to deal with the intricacies of a difficult libretto. That is why I had misgivings about Laurent Pelly’s idea of staging his Così in a studio (inspired in a real place in Berlin). We first see these singers with their music stands in front of their microphones dealing with the stress of recording until they are gradually engulfed in the plot and become Fiordiligi, Dorabella et al. Mr. Pelly’s Personenregie is so detailed and three-dimensional that the audience feels transported. Even if all props and sets were variations of studio recording equipment, everything was imaginatively handled – and thesw singers seemed to be having the time I’d their lives. And it all looked beautiful and coherent.

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There are opera performances the appeal of which is the consistent level of quality across the board even if no individual element reaches excellence. And there are performances so spectacularly uneven that you cannot help wondering why you have actually enjoyed them. In these cases, the answer is the odd outstanding example of talent that seem to light the darkness around it. 

This evening’s Don Giovanni at the Opéra de Paris seemed the caricature of the experience of watching a show in the Opéra Bastille: the audience coughing heartedly, fidgeting with the Velcro opening of their bags,  pieces of jewelry jangling along together with noisy plastic bags, whispering voices, a nervous leg kicking the back of your seat, you name it. All that in a building the acoustics of which seem to be conceived to amplify what happens anywhere but the orchestra pit and the stage.

Yes, the Opéra Bastille probably has the worst acoustics among important opera houses in the world. Why they stage Mozart operas there is a mystery to me. To make things even more helpless, stage designer Jan Versweyveld has developed sets that should be studied as an example of what not to do for an opera performance. Voices either seemed to be sucked upwards and backwards, there is an area where they acquire a disfiguring echo, not to mention the moments when you could not hear them at all because singers were behind the walls of staircase wells.

If any of this was a small price to pay for riches of insight in Ivo van Hove’s production, then, well, one could speak of a trade off. I’m afraid, however, that this was not the case. In the booklet, his dramaturg speaks of social oppression, the need to expunge evil, but it seems that this applies to the five last minutes of the opera – Leporello begins to disobey his master, openly eats his food, turns the table on him. After Don Giovanni goes to hell, the all-grey sets suddenly are full of flowers, mail boxes, bicycles. Now everything is just perfect. 

I have to confess that the fact that Don Giovanni literally goes to hell here made me a bit angry, because the appearances of the Commendatore’s ghost were all of them so prosaic (he just shows up walking from the door with a red stain in his shirt) that I had to believe that the director made a point of avoiding the supernatural. All that would be of little importance if we saw some especially skilled Personenregie. After all, we’re speaking of a fêted theatre director – I myself have good memories of his stagings of things ranging from Hedda Gabler to All about Eve. But this evening we were back to good old semaphoric operatic acting with some very ineffective blocking in ensembles. Disappointing.

It is hard to explain Bertrand de Billy’s conducting this evening. This was clearly the work of someone who knows Mozartian style, in the sense of balance between the sections in the orchestra and singers and of the right rhythmic propulsion. But in the wrong acoustics made worse by these sets, it meant that the orchestra was kept really low. This grisaille of orchestral sound meant no dynamic variety, no dramatic accents and, if there was some clarity of articulation in the string section, nobody would know unless if you were inside the orchestral pit. If we have all this in mind, then Mr. de Billy must be praised for making everything, absolute everything to help his singers while trying as a secondary task to keep every element in check. I’m afraid it all sounded like background music to the audience noise.

On paper, the Opéra offered its audience a lackluster cast, and I didn’t have any expectation, but in the end some of these singers managed somehow to rescue the evening from its seemingly inevitable dreariness. With one exception, I’m speaking about the sopranos. Adela Zaharia’s Donna Anna alone would make it worth the detour. Her creamy high soprano projects naturally, floats effortlessly and takes to coloratura with bel canto quality. Ms. Zaharia has a natural grasp of Mozartian style, sculpting her phrases with poise, sensitivity and attention to the text. While the velvety quality of her voice made her opt for an Or sai chi l’onore on the vulnerable side, she offered a grand account of Non mi dir, handling the coloratura with accuracy and very little need for breath pauses. Brava. 

Nicole Car suffered a little bit with the unhelpful acoustics, but her fruity soprano is well suited for a Donna Elvira in the “lyrical” end of the spectrum. She too has a good grasp of Mozartian style and handled some of the part’s most awkward phrases with poise and dexterity. For someone born very far away from Italy, her recitatives are also vivid enough. Anna El-Khashem’s voice is not on the same level – high notes are pinched and the middle register is on the nasal side – but her Zerlina was one of the most efficient I’ve seen in a while, both in terms of her understanding of the music and the character itself. As we heard the Prague version, she had the opportunity of singing the razor duet, what she did with gusto.

None of the men were that interesting, but Christian Van Horn made me remember the days when A-team basses sang the title role. It is a rich, imposing voice, and yet he worked hard for suaveness, curiously not in his serenata. He doesn’t have an ounce of wildness in him, and his Don Giovanni came across as rather gentlemanly, what goes a bit against the director’s intention of showing the character as evil incarnated. I have the impression that Krzysztof Baczyk must have been indisposed this evening. His Leporello was 50 shades of grey, often woolly and breathy, and he seemed to get progressively tired during the evening. On the other hand, he acted with animation, what made the contrast with his singing even more puzzling. Pavel Petrov’s Don Ottavio is firmer-toned than most singers in the role these days, but he had some trouble being heard and, if he sang mostly within the limits of classical style, one could feel he would rather be in a Donizetti opera. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, an experienced Commendatore, seems to have found the part too low for his voice today.

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Closely after the revival of Jan Philipp Glogger’s “relativistic” staging of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the Opernhaus Zürich presents Moshe Leiser and Patrice Courier’s “realistic” production of L’Italiana in Algeri, an import from Salzburg, as seen in video. Differently from Glogger’s take on the European setting, where the veil of exoticism was lifted, the directorial duo seems to content themselves in replacing old clichés by new clichés – and that is understandable. The libretto here is more deeply rooted in “Orientalism”, and showing it under a different light is a harder work. In any case, their approach to the role of Mustafà as a man with “performance problems” who clings to a fantasy of foreign women as a last hope of finding his mojo back makes the character a little bit more “relatable”. I confess I found the staging more visually pleasing on video. This evening, it looked at times a bit amateurish and shabby, sometimes awkward: main characters having to deal with cumbersome props, some pointless stopgaps in terms of actions (there is a noisy episode of cucumber and carrot slicing the reason of which apparently being a half-baked joke involving a turnip). In any case – except for an unimaginative act 1 finale with characters spinning about to depict “mental confusion” (hmmm…where else have we seen this in a staging of a Rossini opera?), the blocking is effective, well-timed and the gags are usually funny. Fortunately, almost every singer in this cast has a talent for comedy acting, what made it all hit home as expected.

The most remarkable feature of the musical performance was the house period-instrument band, La Scintilla, on duty. I can’t say that this was gain in terms of clarity and texture other than the fact that we could hear woodwind without making an effort. La Scintilla doesn’t have the fullest string section in the world and, in order to produce a true Rossini crescendo, it often turned out sounding a bit abrasive and metallic. If conductor Gianluca Capuano established from the beginning an aptly exhilarating pace, this involved less than ideally polished sound and occasionally bumpy ensembles. But again, if these singers would have benefited from an enveloping rather than piercing orchestra, one can argue that the rough edges add some zest to an opera buffa and the cast had absolutely no problem with dealing with fast divisions.

This is the first time I hear Cecilia Bartoli in the repertoire that made her famous. Yes, I had never seen her sing Rossini live before this evening. And, yup, one understands better why she is so famous when one hears her in a role like Isabella. First, the tessitura fits her voice. Her high register is not juicy or projecting as the competition both in the past and the present, but it is also easier and smoother, while her middle register is solid and she navigates low notes without much ado. Her rhythmic accuracy in her hallmark spiccato makes far more sense here than, say, in Handel. It’s all sparkling and bubbly and effortless. Most of all, she really knows how to deliver the text. She has the audience laughing by the way she rolls an r. This also means she is a good comedy actress and has an instinctive grasp of who these female characters in buffo operas are. In a nutshell, classy, funny, chapeau.

Bartoli was extremely well partnered by Lawrence Brownlee, whose legendary ease with high notes and flexibility granted him enthusiastic applause after every aria. He and his prima donna seemed to have a good relationship too, for I had never seen him act so well as this evening. Then there was Nicola Alaimo’s Taddeo, sung in a big, sunny voice and just the right amount of roughness to make the buffo part come to life. His scenes with Bartoli were a lesson in how one sings Italian comic operas. And he is really, I mean REALLY funny. I had seen Ildar Abrazakov’s Mustafà once at the Met – and I really enjoyed the way he lived up to the challenges, both in vocal and acting terms, in this difficult part. His is not a naturally flexible voice, but he works hard and comes up more convincing than many an apter-voiced bass. As he had no problem in singing a role like this in a big theatre such as the Met, I expected something a little bit more overwhelming in a small theatre such as the one in Zurich. However, his voice was an on and off affair in terms of focus this evening, Alaimo often fuller and louder than him. In any case, in the acting department, he left very little to be desired. A very picky person would say he was a tiny little bit overly self-indulgent, but who cares? It worked, he relished this “non-alpha” concept of the part and established winner partnerships with every member of the cast. As I am really curious to hear Nadezhda Karyazina as Isabella, I’ll be returning later in the run to see her with Pietro Spagnoli in the bass role too. It will be interesting to compare Abdrazakov’s quite out-of-the-box performance with something more classically “Italianate” too.

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