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Every time I have to write about Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, I wonder what editorial choices might have escaped me. Without my books and writing from an iPhone do not help either. Anyway, the Komische Oper explains that this is the Kaye/Keck edition. But not so fast – Frantz’s Jour et nuit is inexplicably inserted in the Giulietta scene, to start with.

As performed this evening, all dialogues and/or recitatives were replaced by a patchwork of texts by E.T.A. Hoffmann read in German by an actor playing the role of “old Hoffmann”. The effect was mostly confusing and failed to provide the audience with the necessary information to understand what would come next. The prologue missed the glouglou chorus but featured almost a page of the overture of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Nicklausse retained all his arias, but suffered cuts in recitatives in the prologue and never transformed into the muse in the epilogue. The Olympia act seemed practically “normal”, but Antonia died without trilling over recapitulation of previously sung material. The Giulietta act retains the barcarolle, but looses Scintille, Diamant and ends in the ensemble in which Hoffmann is laughed at for having lost his mirror reflection. The epilogue has more Mozart than anything else.

Have I forgotten to mention that the prologue and act I have been done in the “baritone version “? As a result, Hoffmann is “upgraded” to the tenor range after the intermission (the final Hoffmann count is three performers: one actor and two singers).

As we can see, most choices have been made to accommodate the production than for any musical reasons. That could have been relevant if this production turned around musical values. As it is, this performance is about the staging, and conductor Stefan Blunier is there to perform the traffic cop duties. His concerns are about tempo in the sense of keeping up with the stage action: clarity, tonal coloring, structural understanding are matters of no consequence. If the director requires unwritten pauses, voice overs, you name it, no problem. The poor Barcarolle has to do without soloists, invisibly singing somewhere in Poland, I can only guess.

Nicole Chevalier’s acting abilities are praiseworthy; she is utterly convincing as every one of Hoffmann’s love interests. Vocally, it is a different story. Her high soprano tackles Olympia high tessitura effortlessly, but the coloratura has its blurred moments. Antonia brought about a nasal, grainy and unattractive middle register. Here we have the coloratura Giulietta, and a brighter and better focused sound made her more appealing than in the previous act. The fioriture in her big aria was more hinted at than truly articulated. Alexandra Cadurina, whom I saw as Dorabella at the Bolshoi last year, is a fruity, clean Nicklausse who was not always true in intonation, certainly vivacious and charming.

The choice of a baritone and a tenor Hoffmanns would have made more sense with a darker-toned baritone and brighter-toned tenor. Dominik Köninger was a faceless Guglielmo in Tokyo, but has developed a warmer sound since then. The baritone version makes Hoffmann more introvert and elegant – the Kleinzach aria gains a lot in dignity (I invariably find it vulgar and boring) without effortful acuti Although Mr. Köninger miscalculated some high notes, he sang with sense of style and good French. The choice of Edgaras Montvidas for the remaining acts puzzles me – it is a voice essentially throaty and lacking projection, foreign to the peculiarities of French opera. Although Dimitry Ivashchenko was not in his best voice as the four villains, his is always a commanding voice spacious up to his top notes and down into his low register. He still needs to be better acquainted with the language of Racine and Molière, though.

Barrie Kosky says he finds Offenbach a genius, but curiously tampers with his music whenever it does not suit his purposes. In any case, his is an aesthetically attractive production, focused on the actors and intelligently conceived in terms of staging (all scenic elements cleverly taken profit of), but curiously short in insight, finally more entertaining than enlightening.

 

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Gounod’s Faust is an opera of extreme circumstances: although it was one of the most performed titles in XIXth century, it has become something of a rarity these days (the Met has proven otherwise faithful to the work that inaugurated its old theatre); although it has this utterly German subject, it is entirely French in style and atmosphere. Karsten Wiegand’s 2009 production for the Berlin Staatsoper (here shown as recreated in Weimar in 2011) is accordingly extreme: it could have been featured in Zitty magazine in its Mauerfall sensibilities. Here the devil comes from the West and wears Prada. His modus operandi is based on money: once he enrolls good old Dr. Faust, their aim is using, abusing and discarding the people once their sweet dreams are over. Poor old Gretchen believes her faith will save her soul, but the pious Easter chanting is sung by a golden elite presided by none other than the devil himself (obviously in praise of themselves). In other circumstances, this could be called an oversimplification, but – all things considered – it is an efficient and powerful oversimplification. For an old production, it looks remarkably fresh and soloist and chorus seem comfortable with it.

The edition used by the Staatsoper follows the staging’s convenience: some cuts are made, usual excisions are opened and some numbers are rearranged (the Golden Calf song is here sandwiched with Faust’s and Marguerite’s big arias). Simone Young offers a very expressive account of the score, warmly played by the Staatskapelle and abundant in beautiful solos from her musicians, the violin in Salut, demeure more poetic and haunting than the singer. I have the impression that there could have been a little bit miss rehearsing, so that the concertati sound truly synchronized.

I confess that I was not dying to hear Tatiana Lisnic’s Marguerite as a replacement for Krassimira Stoyanova. Fortunately, she sounds really better live than in recordings. Even if the voice is not particularly beautiful and her high notes are smoky and the low register still needs to be sorted out (… and the trill is not there), she sang with affection, charm and understanding of the dramatic situations. She could also take pride of place in ensembles, something I could not say of her tenor. Dulcet as Pavol Breslik’s voice sounds, it is helplessly small-scaled for this part. And the high c in his aria had more than one foot in the falsetto field. The idea of having Stephan Rügamer as “the old Faust” was not exactly great: the French language has the power of making his usually nasal tone entirely nasal.

Marina Prudenskaya was a firm-toned Siebel that could treat her lines a bit more gently – the first aria especially sounded on the fluttery side. The grains in Alfredo Daza’s baritone are starting to become loose in a way very close to wobbling. Valentin is a soldier and doesn’t necessarily need to seem smooth, but I don’t see the point of the increasing roughness.

If it is true that René Pape is no longer comfortable in the very end of his low register, he still makes good use of it in a role where he can do no wrong. He is the raison d’être of this performance, and those in the audience will be able to tell their grandchildren of having seen Pape’s Méphistophélés in the theatre.

I wonder what a Frenchman would say of the treatment French language received this evening. All singers had plausible pronunciation and made sense of what they were singing (in the case of Mr. Pape, more than this), but soprano and tenor sounded studied and were not always very clear about the differences between “e”, “é” and “è”.

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I reckon that anyone involved with a staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel must spend a great deal of time wondering where the hell they can start with – Valery Bryusov’s story is both fascinating and puzzling, Prokofiev has composed music that makes the audience feel as if they had been swept by a tsunami and all roles are challenging to sing and to act, let alone sing and act at the same time. The Komische Oper has decided that the only way to face a task like that is without  a safety net. Berlin’s “third” opera house has a tradition of presenting the entire repertoire in translation, but opted instead for the original Russian libretto this time. Then Australian enfant-terrible theatre director Benedict Andrews has been invited to direct it. Fortune favors the bold – this 2014 production was very well received by critics and has been drawing audiences to the opera house in Behrenstraße ever since.

This is actually the first time I’ve seen this opera. Until yesterday, I had only known it through Neeme Järvi recording with Nadine Secunde and Siegfried Lorenz. While listening to it, I had curiously never “staged” it in my mind, but what I’ve just seen makes me feel it could not have been done otherwise. Although Mr. Andrews quotes David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as an influence (surprisingly apt), the staging never fails to convince because it has been able to be: a) faithful to the libretto without being overwhelmed by it; b) adventurous without exaggeration – the plot as it is has impact to spare; c) universal by going beyond the immediate symbology and yet very Russian in its aesthetic and its very particular large dramatic gestures (and even a hint of comedy). In this staging, Renata is a victim of child abuse who acts out by creating a scenario in which she was instead “visited by an angel”. The problem is: when she becomes aware of her own sexuality and tries to sexually relate to “the angel”, she is no longer a victim, she is the perpetrator. She chastises herself and is tormented by demons. Ruprecht is another outsider who develops some sort of folie à deux with the beautiful and provocative young woman who demands everything from him… but sex. If I have to be picky, the final scene in the convent would ideally require an approach less taken at face value to be fully coherent with the overall concept. In any case, it does not spoil the fun at all: the production is always visually catching, imaginative and interesting.

Svetlana Sozdateleva denies her Renata nothing – she plunges into the role without thinking twice. Her voice is not typically shrill or wobbly, but rather warm enough as the part requires, but it is a bit unfocused, especially in the middle register. She makes for it in stamina and clarity of articulation. Evez Abdulla’s baritone has a tenor-ish edge and a keenness on cantabile even in the most declamatory passages that makes his Ruprecht particularly congenial. Jens Larssen was a particularly firm-toned and powerful Inquisitor, the only member in the cast who could actually preside over an invariably loud orchestra. I wouldn’t blame veteran conductor Vassily Sinaisky for that, though: the performance ran with absolute clarity and unfailing rhythmic propulsion. Even tested by the heavy demands, the house orchestra acquitted itself commendably.

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I can only imagine that Simon Rattle, when asked “which is going to be your next operatic project with the Berliner Philharmoniker?”,  consults Herbert von Karajan’s discography. Although Karajan sometimes opted to record some of his performances made live with his Berliners with the Vienna Philharmonic, that was not really the case with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. His recording with Frederica von Stade and José van Dam is both famous and controversial, but the truth is that he never performed the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in concert or in the opera house, but rather did it in the Vienna State Opera with Hilde Güden and Eberhard Wächter in 1962/1963. His successor in Berlin, Claudio Abbado, also chose to record it with the Vienna Philharmonic with Maria Ewing and again José van Dam after performances in the Austrian opera house. Therefore, the name of the present music director is connected to the performance history of Debussy’s only opera – since 2006 the Berlin Philharmonic has only played it under his baton.

Karajan is accused of “germanizing” the opera in the above mentioned orchestra-oriented EMI recording, but I would not say he disregarded the composer’s efforts in avoiding Wagnerism at all costs. That recording could be rather fittingly called “Brahmsian” in its large scale and gravitas. Rattle instead begs to differ. How often one sees a child so determined to behave differently from his parents only to realize in the end that he is more similar to them than what he would like to admit? The fact that Debussy had Wagner as a “non-model” on writing Pelléas et Mélisande only meant that Wagner was in his thoughts while he wrote it – this seems to be the concept of this evening’s performance in the Philharmonie. Although I am not really a fan of Sir Simon’s, I do admire his intent of thinking things anew, even if this sometimes involves things going really astray.

I would not say that this evening went astray. Every little aspect in his performance was coherently informed by his Tristan-esque concept and rendered expertly to this purpose. The Philharmonic sounded its fullest, deepest and richest, responded to the conductor’s demands on increasing intensity adeptly and excelled in tone coloring. Act V, in particular, showed febricity enough to make the delirious Tristan in act III tame in comparison. As my 9 or 10 readers might be guessing by now, I do not subscribe to this concept. Some designs made in blue look just vulgar in red. The multilayered demi-tintes conceived by Debussy exposed to this coruscating approach sounded just like Mascagni without the catchy tunes to my ears, especially when the cast, having to compete with the full glory of the Berliner Philharmoniker, most often than not had to sing at full powers and – in the central tessitura preferred by the composer – would mostly sound overpowered.

To call this a staged performance may seem at first an exaggeration – director Peter Sellars made it almost exclusively by lighting effects, the only props here being a letter and a platform right in the middle of the stage. He explored all spaces available in the hall (some of them quite invisible to large parts of the audience); the remoteness also made some of the singing hard to hear under these circumstances. Mr. Sellars too does not believe in demi-tintes – his approach is a bit on the telenovela side. For him, this is a domestic abuse tale. Mélisande cannot help her sexuality; Pelléas is a nice chap in a high-testosterone groping way; Golaud is a psychopath, but it is not his fault: his father is a dirty old man and his mother is absent-minded. Here, the hapless title-couple kiss at the first opportunity, are quite graphic in the tower scene, Arkel molests the pregnant Mélisande, who is kicked in her belly by Golaud, who couldn’t care less about her condition. This might make things a bit too clear for those who were not getting in the first place – but if you come to think that Debussy took the pains of writing the scene in the castle’s souterrain just to suggest that Golaud is threatening Pelléas without actually saying anything, having the cuckold pointing a knife at his brother makes the whole detour pointless, isn’t it? Again, if I disagree with the concept, it does not mean it wasn’t expertly done – the Personenregie was utterly convincing, all singers placed in each scene to optimal dramatic and aesthetic results and fully in grasp of the meaning of each gesture.

Although this evening’s cast is what one would call “glamorous”, I have the impression that a Wagnerian approach would ideally require a Wagnerian cast. I mean it- I always wondered about the possibility of hearing some like Régine Crespin, Tatiana Troyanos or Jessye Norman as Mélisande – particularly when you have a loud and powerful orchestra on duty. Although Magdalena Kozená is the opposite of Wagnerian, her Mélisande (with whom I was acquainted from a broadcast from Paris with Marc Minkowski) was ideally sung in absolute clarity of text and line and, by the way of perfect focus and bright tonal quality, very easily heard. Her approach is extremely artless and direct, what does not exactly goes with the circumstances. Sylph-like bell-toned Mélisandres seem to be the default for this role, but I plead guilty to my preference for Maria Ewing’s powers of suggestion of making you wonder what she is aiming at by saying Si, si, je les ferme la nuit… Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas)is a singer with fondness for the emphatic and the underlined. Prompted by the bombastic direction and the grandiloquent conducting, he sometimes made me think of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s Scarpia in Lorin Maazel’s recording. But that is me being mean – he has very clear French, handles the text with hallmark care of a Lieder singer and is comfortable with the high tessitura. But he is no Stéphane Degout. Gerald Finley is a paragon of perfect technique and musicianship, not to mention that his French sounded perfectly idiomatic to my non-native ears. He is a very amiable guy, though, and the demands of having to seem wild and dangerous involved some barking, distortion of line and parlando effects that I found a little distracting. Bernarda Fink was an expressive Genieviève, comfortable in this contralto emploi, but I’ve found Franz-Josef Selig far more persuasive in the context of Charles Dutoit’s subtle performance in Tokyo one year ago.

 

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Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Sonya Yoncheva does not have a plan to conquer the world; she focus on one country at a time. Her journey has really got momentum in France, where she sang everything from Rameau to the three leading roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Her next station was the USA, where her Gilda, Desdemona and Violetta have received rave reviews. Although she had already sung in Germany, a new production of La Traviata made specially for her at the Berlin Staatsoper with Daniel Barenboim seems to be the real beginning of her German “campaign”. I had seen her only once in four very exciting minutes of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes in the anniversary gala of the Concert d’Astrée – and was eager for more (her lovely CD of French arias plus Violetta’s Sempre Libera made me even more curious), even if it meant having to sit through a whole Traviata. Especially one staged by Dieter Dorn, whose Nozze di Figaro for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Elektra for the Lindenoper are hardly my favorite productions, to put it mildly.

This evening’s Traviata did not made me change my mind. Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors, a photograph showing a skull built from seven naked bodies, is recreated live as an image in Violetta’s mirror, in the top of which there is a very drab looking brown bag supposed to be an hour glass, the sand falling on a writing table. Around it, there is a semicircular black wall with doors. It is a single set for a performance without intermission. This fact alone makes for very problematic situations: Alfredo says he does not have any fun when Violetta is not there – but she is there; Violetta says she is leaving for good, but she is still there. Since the set has almost no piece of furniture, everybody has to sit on the floor and lie down and crawl. This makes me believe that Germont, Snr., is visually challenged – Violetta is shoeless, disheveled, crouching near a wall, there is a lot of her thighs to be seen, and his opinion is “She is so ladylike”. Then he looks around at that rathole and adds “But how about a luxurious place such as this?”. In any case, one could have said: “ok, this is a very ugly Traviata; now let’s focus on everything else!”. But this would not be an easy task. There are some vey basic problems – the blocking is often nonsensical, singers are often uncomfortable with what they have to do and Yoncheva has always her arms stretched out as if she were swimming rather than walking and more than once twirls as a 6-year-old girl… in her anticipation of vortices of pleasure… I don’t want to publish a spoiler, but the death scene is truly embarrassing. Peter Mussbach’s old production was not faultless, but it is worlds apart from this one in atmosphere, Personenregie and insight.

Although I have never been keen on Daniel Barenboim’s Verdi, this evening he has set a new low in his records: to start with, the orchestral sound was so recessed, brassy and unsubtle that one could legitimately believe that the banda off stage was in charge the whole evening through. La Traviata is not one of Verdi’s most inspired examples of writing for the orchestra, and this demands an extraordinary effort from the conductor in order to produce musically and dramatically coherent and refined phrasing. The performance this evening could rather be described as mechanical in terms of rhythm, inexistent in terms of strings and non-functional in terms of expression. If one remembers that the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is even mind-boggling. A moment that exemplifies all the faults in this evening’s performance: the emotional peak in the whole opera is the act II Amami, Alfredo: it features the musical theme of the preludes to act I and act III, it comes as a culmination of a very difficult scene with a truly wide-ranging emotional aspect and it builds up to a vocal and orchestral climax. At this point, Ms. Yoncheva was trying to balance her strengths in a passage that tests her lyric voice. But then the orchestra was still comfortably in ppp. It erupted only abruptly for one second: Amami, AlfrE (outburst from the orchestra)-edo, Amami, quanto io T’A(another outburst)-amo. The effect seemed like cannon shots rather than a crescendo. Why?!

The success of La Traviata depends on the soprano in the leading role – and these performances have a clear advantage there. Sonya Yoncheva is simply the most interesting Violetta Valéry I’ve seen on stage. She knows exactly what every note and word means and does not take any second for granted. She kept me on the edge of my seat during the whole evening by virtue of her imagination and good judgment. To make things better, her voice is interesting in itself. It is not pretty in a classical way and at moments suggests the tonal “flashness” of an Callas (albeit in a lighter and smaller version) with the technical discipline of a singer who sang Mozart and Handel: until act III her passaggio was handled with unfailing precision, not to mention that her coloratura and mezza voce are very adept. And she masters the art of tone coloring – it is a voice that can caress and kill depending on the moment. So why am I not more excited about the performance as a whole? Intelligent, stylish and well-crafted as it was, it never sounded truly sincere. This was Sonya Yoncheva singing La Traviata, and it turned around her many talents, but Violetta’s emotional journey, from the intoxicated despair of act I, via the joys of the newly discovered sense of belonging even at the expense of happiness in act II, towards depression, mourning of her own dreams and hope of spiritual bliss in act III – all this was largely absent. Since act III is also the most challenging to her voice, the lack of a “vision” made this fact very clear. All that said, it is still the most interesting Violetta I’ve seen live (and I’ve seen some very good ones) and I reckon that apter production and conducting plus more experience in the role will make it closer to what it  is meant to be.

Her Alfredo was Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri. It is a very particular voice, something like: Joseph Calleja minus the vibratello, the idiomatic Italian, the imagination and the technical finish. Now being fair: he was evidently very nervous, and I am sure that the wrong notes, the frogs and the extra breath pauses probably won’t be there by the end of the run. But there already is plenty to cherish: the good taste, the mezza voce, the flexibility, the naturalness and the good size for a lyric voice. The all-round more complete performance this evening was, however, Simone Piazzola’s as Germont, père. His Renato-Bruson-like baritone may lack some volume in its higher reaches, but the style comes to him without effort and he alone seemed to have some real emotional connection with what was going on on stage, even if one might call the approach rather generalized compared to the prima donna’s meticulous understanding of her lines.

 

 

 

 

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In its yearly Wagner offering, the Tokyo Spring Festival goes a step further in its Ring cycle conducted by Marek Janowski featuring international casts (some singers from Janowski’s Wagner series recorded live in the Philharmonie in Berlin appear here too) with two concert performances of Die Walküre. In order to add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings, video projections depicting the sets for each act are shown, although none of these images are remotely as expressive as Waltraud Meier’s face.

The German mezzo, in excellent voice this afternoon, has adapted her Sieglinde to her present lighter-voiced self, building a particularly vulnerable and touching character, especially in act III when she thanks Brünnhilde for saving her life with palpable sense of awe and fervor. Without any doubt, I would call this the best Sieglinde I’ve heard from her in recent years. It was also fortunate that Catherine Foster too was in great shape, offering here a Brünnhilde more smoothly and sensitively sung rather than either in Bayreuth or in Berlin. Elisabeth Kulman’s Fricka is a lesson in how building a dramatic performance with a lyric voice: her mezzo is ideally focused in every register; the crystal-clear diction and the rhythmic accuracy make for unfailing incisiveness; and she handles the text with imagination and intelligence. Robert Dean Smith is, as always, a light Siegmund, with ideal legato and dynamic variety, but some might miss some radiance in his high notes. Egils Silins is a vocally unproblematic yet monochromatic and not truly subtle Wotan. In Sung Sim is a powerful and dark-toned Hunding. The team of Japanese valkyries was rather irregular, especially among the lower-voiced singers.

Maestro Janowski led a forward-moving and rhythmic alert performance that responded competently to some practical problems: a fast account of Wotan’s big act II monologue to compensate for a not particularly expressive soloist, for example. He demanded everything from the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which, inspired by Rainer Küchl’s ad hoc activity as spalla, worked hard for a bright, focused sound à la Vienna Philharmonic. These musicians produced some praiseworthy passagework in the end of act I, but the strife for clarity in the Walkürenritt ultimately brought about an impression of disjointedness. At some point, one could feel a sense of exhaustion, but giving up was fortunately never an option this afternoon. This performance only confirms the NHK SO’s Wagnerian potential still to yield interesting results as this ring cycle progresses.

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Gilbert Deflo’s new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut  (a co-production with the Deutsche Oper Berlin actually) is entirely free of any Regie approach – it just tells the story in some sort of foolproof way that involves minimalistic sets/elaborate costumes combo. There is not much of a Personenregie either, but I would rather say that this wise choice under the circumstances. In any case, some things could be refined: for instance, when Des Grieux comes to prevent Manon to board the ship to Louisiana, the other deportees act as nothing were happening (what is VERY unlikely). Also, Geronte has the gait of an elderly man, but has no problem in reaching things on the floor and then getting up.

Pier Giorgio Morandi is usually a reliable conductor in this repertoire – and he did get things moving on, but “passion” is not the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra’s specialty. The score requires plenty of that, but here the replacement was “brassiness”. As a result, the overall impression was of bureaucratic noisiness. At least, singers were given enough leeway to take care of the interpretation department.

Svetla Vassileva is something of a director’s dream casting for the role of Manon: she has the looks and – although her Manon is too much of a good girl (at least in this production) – the attitude. I would not say she truly has the voice for it, but her lyric soprano can deal with it without much problem. Her soprano has a Freni-like shimmering quality that can get quite vibrant at times, but a very warmth and velventiness of her soprano eschews hints of what some call “Slavic” vibrato. She manages the passaggio very adeptly and deals with the low tessitura seamlessly and without any vulgarity. She can still be overshadowed by the orchestra down there (as in Sola, perduta, abbandonata), but compensates with sensitive shading and beautiful mezza voce now and then, not to mention flexibility and charm in the act II gavotte. The natural feeling for Italian style and the fact that she seems to inhabit her text and notes adds up to a pleasing if not truly moving performance. I have the impression that purely lyric roles would show her more advantageously. After seeing Gustavo Porta as an unsubtle Canio some months ago, I was not really looking forward for this afternoon. I am glad to report that his Des Grieux was a different story. I found the voice stronger-centered and a bit darker in sound. As in the NNT’s Pagliacci, he deals with heroic high notes without effort, but proved to be capable of some nuance too: he scaled down for piano quite often and even floated mezza voce once or twice. His line was also clean of some vulgarities some tenors sell as “verismo style”, but calling it “elegant” would be a stretch. There are moments of flutter and he seemed a bit tired in No, pazzo son. Dalibor Jenis was a congenial Lescaut, in particularly good voice today.

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