Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Frittoli’

In the first item of their Japanese tour, the Teatro alla Scala seems to have decided to show Japanese audiences that in the Verdi’s 200th anniversary, you cannot go more authentic than with La Scala: Falstaff was first performed there in 1893. Furthermore, this evening’s prima donna is Milanese herself and the singer in the title role is from Lombardy too. However, the inspiration for Verdi (and Boito) is Shakespeare – and director Robert Carsen has decided, in this co-production from the Milanese theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera House and, what else?… ah, the Nederlandse Opera, to delve into Englishness. On stage, no visual cliché about England is spared: wood paneling, leather armchairs, hunting apparel, tea parties etc. The results are pleasant to the eyes in warm colors and economy of resources. In terms of Personenregie, there is no complex concept to perform here: Sir John Falstaff, Mr and Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Quickly behave very much like normal people (I mean, like normal people in a staged comedy), what is refreshing for a change.

If there was something actually English in this Falstaff, this was conductor Daniel Harding. As I have often here said, Falstaff is no favorite opera of mine, but I have had the luck to find persuasive advocates in the conductors whom I’ve seen live in the theatre – James Levine back in the Metropolitan Opera and Daniele Gatti in Paris. Harding too is a conductor who places the orchestra in the centre of the proceedings – the Filarmonica della Scala played with great animation, offering the conductor the raw, flashy colors he needed for his ebullient approach to the score. Everything shone, sparkled and moved forward this afternoon. True clarity in ensembles was not really there, but the overall conviction would make you overlook that. What one could not overlook was the lack of lightness and sense of humor. You just have to pick your old Karajan CDs to see how famously Schwarzkopf, Barbieri, Taddei and the Philharmonia Orchestra were enjoying themselves. In comparison, this evening sounded a bit manic. In any case, I don’t want to give a false impression – this performance was fun, but – in terms of music – not always very funny.

Being funny is not a problem for Ambrogio Maestri. He is my kind of Falstaff – he is not trying to be funny at all and that makes him even funnier. He is entirely at ease with the music, the text, the character. Even when his voice shows some rough patch, he makes it part of his interpretation. And the sheer volume  and darkness makes his Falstaff a little bit more threatening than with singers who go all for buffoonery. Although Daniela Barcellona’s mezzo lies a bit high for the part, she too has more than the measure of her role – and her spacious chest voice is very aptly used here. Her scenes with Maestri were actually the highlights today. I took a while to recognise Barbara Frittoli’s voice this afternoon. At first, she sounded uncannily like Maria Chiara, but gradually her velvety, slightly astringent soprano began to sound like itself. In any case, she was in good, flexible voice and handled the text with naturalness and spirit. As Ford, Massimo Cavalletti was a bit blustery, but well cast nonetheless. The voice is, of course, Italianate and firm, not truly penetrating in its higher reaches, but hearable enough. At first, Irina Lungu’s soprano seemed too grown-up and smoky-toned for Nanetta, but she can float long high notes without effort and keeps a beautiful singing line too. If her Fenton, Antonio Poli, did not sound suave enough at first, he finally sang his “aria” with elegance and imagination. Meg is a difficult role and I find that it only works when cast with a beautiful-voiced singer. Otherwise, it disappears in background. Laura Polverelli was not in excellent voice and sounded squally and overvibrant this afternoon.


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Thanks to James Levine’s invaluable advocacy, the Metropolitan Opera House has probably the world record in of performances of La Clemenza di Tito, the culmination of the opera seria genre, Mozart’s black pearl where tradition is reviewed and new perspective are hinted at. This is reason enough to find interest in every revival of this work in the Lincoln Center’s opera house, where casts of indisputable glamor have been assembled for 30 years. “Revival” is no random word here – since the 1984 house première, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production has been on duty. I myself saw it in 2008 and wondered then if it would still be around in the near future. It has been a positive surprise to found it interestingly revamped five years later.

Spielleiter Peter McClintock deserves credit for reading the libretto anew and bring to the fore so many interesting aspects in the text that made characters far more three-dimensional than in the past. Even for someone who knows this almost by heart, I could find food for thought here. Two examples:

a) I have always thought that Non più di fiori is some sort of twisted mad scene. Normally, a character would fantasize in such a moment about a happy ending that is not going to happen;  Vitellia is, however, no victim – so she fantasizes about the tragic ending that is not going to happen, the final section of her rondo some kind of acute episode of infantilization, in which she lulls herself into being passive after being dangerously active. Here, Vitellia is a spoiled brat from moment one and her childish narcissism makes the volte-face a logical conclusion – as she said, she made it all for love (for Tito), the revenge plot and also its final confession. A brilliant piece of casting made it easy to see all that.

b) Seductive as Vitellia might be, it had never struck me before today that nobody would be talked into a plot like that if he had not fantasized about it himself before – Vitellia being the liberating externalization of his suppressed desire of dragging Tito’s moral excellence to the mud. Here Tito appears to be carefree and content in the company of Sesto and Annio, who seem to be ill-at-ease near the Emperor, rather indulging him than enjoying being there. When Tito say things like “By marrying your sister, I’ll shorten the infinite gap set by the gods between you and me”, you could almost hear the “what a jerk…” in Sesto’s thoughts. The surprise here is that, when these two friends finally can express their feelings without pretty words, this is the moment when they discover how important they are to each other, an especially sad discover for Tito, whose main longing had always been to find someone to whom he could talk “at eye level”. Here casting was not very helpful to show all this, but the director’s hand could be felt at least.

By brilliant casting for Vitellia I meant Barbara Frittoli. Her voice has seen more exuberant days, especially when things get high or fast, and she has to cheat in some perilous moments, but the tonal quality is inimitably warm and full, she handles the low tessitura famously and everything has some sort of glamor. What makes her so special, though, is her ability to make Vitellia some sort of classical Scarlett O’Hara (or Rossella O'[H]ara, as she is called in Italy). The contrast to Elina Garanca’s Sesto is telling – the Latvian mezzo sings with immaculate poise, technique and sense of style and is often sensitive too (a beautiful Deh per questo), but doesn’t really inhabit the text – the important accompagnato Oh dei, che smania è questa being the less effective moment of her performance. In his first aria, Giuseppe Filianoti seemed to promise a bumpy evening, but he would eventually settle for something less awkward. His is an interesting voice for the role, but having to sing Mozartian lines takes him to the limits of his technique – the results being more accomplished than elegant, musically illuminating or just pleasant to the ears. If you want a forceful, bright sound, Gregory Kunde in the broadcast from Aix (2011) offered something far more polished. But there is a very positive side to Filianoti’s performance – his crystal-clear diction, his intent of making sense of his recitatives and some emotional urgency in his scenes with Sesto.

I have seen Kate Lindsey only once in a small role, but her Annio made me feel like hearing more. Although the voice itself lacks some personality, she makes the most of it in true Mozartian phrasing – and she is a good actress too. Lucy Crowe, a creamy-toned Servilia, lacked nuance in the exquisite act I duettino, but deserves the highest praise for her haunting performance of S’altro che lagrime, probably the most moving I have ever heard since Colin Davis’s recording with Lucia Popp (my six or seven readers will probably understand that this comparison is the top-level compliment in this blog).

Harry Bickett was the conductor I happened to see in 2008. Then I wrote that “expression and grandeur were achieved at the expense of clarity”. Not in this broadcast – the Met orchestra’s fullt-toned flexibility that evening is something to marvel. The conductor showed also deepened understand of this score’s profile, creating the atmosphere to each scene with precise accents and sense of threatre. Although the house chorus cannot compete with the level of accuracy of a Monteverdi Choir, their hushed Ah, grazie si rendano was a beautiful moment at any rate.

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Thirty-two years ago, the Vienna State Opera brought to Japan Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, particularly noted for its film adaptation (published five years before) with Kiri Te Kanawa, Mirella Freni and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The cast seen and heard at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan was no less glamorous: Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Agnes Baltsa, Bernd Weikl and Hermann Prey. Even in this uniformly prestigious group of singers, Popp’s Susanna was very much the evening’s Schwerpunkt, as it should be. After all, Susanna is the central role in this opera,and if the soprano does not provide the starting spark, the performance generally does not ignite.

The resurrection of Ponnelle’s old staging does seem anachronistic in the sense that its traditional approach, no added insight and cute routines are rarely seen in operatic stages these days. And yet, the staging presently in use in Vienna (by Jean-Louis Martinoty) too is more or less traditional, albeit stylized – and certainly less beautiful. What proved to be a surprise for me was the fact that, as staged this evening, sets and costumes looked shining new and Diana Kienast’s Spielleitung made the proceedings far more agile than they used to be in Ponnelle’s days. Also, the level of acting was above average, some singers bringing fresh ideas to their roles and some freshness to a potentially stiff enterprise.

I would say that a more agile conductor would have done the necessary trick to suppress the museological aspect of this performance. Peter Schneider has an old-fashioned view of this score – rich, vibrant orchestral sound, considerate tempi and elegant, light-on-the-foot tempi – pleasant, slightly decadent Mozart made believable by the echt decadent elegance imported from Vienna. The truth is that with any other big orchestra, this would have probably been quite boring – but these musicians know how to produce bright, clean, transparent sounds (I guess that the A-team featured in this evening’s Don Giovanni in the old opera house would have brought a little bit more smoothness too). As it was, moments like Aprite, presto aprite  could have done with less ponderousness, but whenever a serious undertone could be found, the maestro and his orchestra could find the right poignant note that makes a performance of this opera really special – something that many buoyant and supple performances of this opera unfortunately often lack.

Barbara Frittoli’s vibrant soprano can still produce the right effect in this music – her Porgi, amor deeply heartfelt and poised – but there is now some tremulousness in her mezza voce and her high register is no longer really comfortable (she predictably chose the lower options in Susanna, or via sortite). Her characterization, as always, three-dimensional and classy. Her Susanna, Sylvia Schwartz is unfortunately too small-scaled to produce the right effect. She was too often inaudible and unvaried and the tone is grainy and not sexy. She is a stylish and musicianly singer – but the memory of Lucia Popp in the same production makes things difficult for her.  As Cherubino, Margarita Gritskova offered the all-round more satisfying performance in the evening – her fruity mezzo projects well in the hall and she sang with true Mozartian poise. I intended to write that Carlos Álvarez was very close to be an ideal Count, full-toned and patrician with the right touch of nastiness – but I find his manipulation of his big aria’s stretta simply unacceptable. A baritone who has often sung Verdi shouldn’t be afraid of high notes. Erwin Schrott was clearly not at his most energetic – his voice sounded often undersupported, legato was often left to imagination, he overused parlando effects and was rather rhythmically imprecise. During the evening, he would improve and bring imaginative small effects (and some rather bureaucratically employed) to his Figaro. Small roles could be a little bit more solid (but for a charming Barbarina in Valentina Nafornita, more Susanna-material than Schwartz herself) – the chorus definitely could be improved upon.

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Inutilia truncat is one of the most representative “slogans” of Classical art, one Dieter Dorn could have claim to follow when creating his 1997 production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro for the Bavarian State Opera. There is no lack of action in Beaumarchais’s story as told by Lorenzo da Ponte, but the truth is that you should take good care of what you are showing on stage when you are showing basically very little. Jürgen Rose’s sets never suggest anything clean and elegant, but rather lack of imagination and limited budget. As if saggy white fabric walls were not disappointing enough, the Countess is denied furniture but only a couple of blue chairs on a blue linoleum (Susanna has to write her letter to the Count on the floor with an instrument the handiness of which can only suggest a ball pen miraculously sent from the future) and the whole garden scene is reduced to three large pieces of white cloth under the most glaring lighting one can think of. If the Count does not recognize his wife as thoroughly lit as she was there, it was probably because he was dazzled by followspots. After 13 years, it is impossible to speak of the director’s original ideas for his actors, but the most positive aspect of this performance was the overall very good stage performances from all involved. Although there is probably nothing original going on here, this was nimbly performed by the cast.

The only character who seems to have deserved special consideration seems to be the Countess, here shown as the mistress of her own household ready to use Susanna and Figaro for her purposes (i.e., winning her husband back) almost as selfishly as the Count. It was most fortunate that Barbara Frittoli could perform the concept as believably as she has done this evening. Although her attitude towards her servants was quite liberal, this tampered nothing with the fact that they were supposed to obey her orders. Also, even if she longed for her husband attentions, this did not prevent her from loosing her temper at him whenever an instance of his misbehavior had been found out. The Milanese soprano’s vibrant voice has always required some time for a demanding ear to adjust it to the needs of Mozartian instrumental purity and, even if these days it is running dangerously close to unacceptability, it still remains inside the realm of admissibility. Once you get used to it, you will find a stylish singer able to very clean attack in testing moments such as Porgi, amor, easy ascent to her high register (she sang her own high notes as written by Mozart, instead of delegating them to her Susanna) and a very homogenous tonal quality throughout her range. More than that, a singer who handles the text intelligently and whose soprano is large enough to tackle a lyric role in a larger house without forcing and capable of shading without holding back. Although her singing this evening was hardly immaculate, it was nonetheless engaging, expressive and spirited.

Camilla Tilling is the owner of  a pretty voice and has a strong sense of Mozartian style, but lacks projection and tends to be overshadowed by the orchestra and other singers. She was also an austere, rather charmless Susanna, but still spontaneous and surprisingly quite realistic. In the end, even if I missed some vivaciousness, I could not help thinking that the trade-off for the usual commandingness and cuteness was somehow positive. As Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus was, on the other hand, vivaciousness itself. Hers is an irresistibly warm voice and she has temper to spare. After some problems during Non so più , she offered a memorable Voi che sapete, desire, anxiety and seduction perfectly balanced. The Almaviva family was quite well represented this evening, for Mariusz Kwiecien proved to be an exemplary Count. His strong baritone finds no difficulty in this writing and he knows how to convey bossiness while keeping some charm. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo proved to be less creative as Figaro, his is a firm, generously and vigorously produced voice and, as Frittoli and Bonitatibus, could make recitatives sparkle in the idiomatic usage of their native language.

Juraj Valcuha seems to have a good idea of how this opera should be performed within the limits of Mozartian style and the house orchestra is adeptly flexible and clear, even if the sound was not terribly beautiful, but the idea behind the gesture was not always there. Too often, the proceedings suggested the mechanical rather than the spirited. To make things worse, now and then one would suspect that a couple of extra rehearsals could have been helpful – ensembles were often poorly timed and every member of the cast, in various degrees, would occasionally experiment some trouble in following the conductor’s beat.

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James Levine’s credentials as a Mozartian are widely acknowledged. In his hands, the score of a Mozart opera is given the apparently incompatible virtues of suppleness and rhythmic propulsion – all of that dictated by a deep knowledge of theatre, what is of paramount importance in the drammi giocosi by Da Ponte. In this sense, Levine’s perfect understand of shifting in moods is admirable. It is true that a sculptor needs the right marble – and in Levine’s case this is the Vienna Philharmonic, as his rightly famous recordings prove. Although the Met’s orchestra is sincerely dedicated to its maestro, it is undeniable that Mozart exuberant passagework is still hard work for string players. That said, Levine is the kind of conductor who helps his musicians to make their best – and his cast should certainly appreciate that, especially in the trickiest passages, where his beat always came handy in order to give them time to breathe or to develop a line without making violence to the flow of phrasing. In this sense, Lesley Koenig’s production is also most welcome in its unobtrusiveness and elegance. Only director Robin Guarino should bear in mind that this kind of comedy is the one you smile rather than laugh with. This can be particularly bothersome when a particularly difficult roulade or trill is shadowed by the audience’s hilarity.

Barbara Frittoli’s vocal production these days is not immediately compatible with Mozartian repertoire. And that is not because she has poor technique, but rather because her technique is a bit unconventional. The tone has a certain veiled quality that takes to mezza voce almost automatically. One could point out that she is also over-reliant on that ability in order to get away with the most difficult points, where her clean divisions are always a blessing. In any case, once you adjust to her exotic velvety shadowy and ultimately sexy sound, her Fiordiligi is definitely appealing. Unlike most exponents of the part, Frittoli is a sunny only half-serious girl, more practical and ready to some entertainment than we are used to see.

The lovely Magdalena Kozena was a perky Dorabella, sung in her oboe-like flexible high mezzo and a powerful amount of imagination and charm. Although these sisters’ voices were nicely contrasted, the blending in her duets was simply admirable. More than that, it is praiseworthy that Kozena sounded almost as idiomatic as her Italian colleague. The result was crispy recitatives and a sense of true interaction between both artists.

Alternating Fenton with Ferrando may be a feat in itself, but it may have had something to do with the time Matthew Polenzani needed to focus his high register for Mozartian needs. Because of that, Un’aura amorosa sounded uncomfortable and uninspiring. However, act II revealed the American tenor at his best. Both Ah, lo vegg’io and Tradito, schernito were sung with golden liquid tone even in the exposed high notes and his interaction with Frittoli in their duet was also top class. Even next to such enticing tenorism, Mariusz Kwiecien can boast to have stolen the show with his firm flexible and dark-hued baritone. He is certainly going places.

There is no need to say Thomas Allen was a Don Alfonso to the manner born. Only an occasional lack of space in the bottom register could be singled out in a virtually perfect performance. He too can boast to have idiomatic Italian, as one could see in his scenes with Nuccia Focile’s Despina. It is a pity, though, that this spirited Italian soprano no longer has the technical finish to this repertoire. Some overacting had to do what voice alone could not.

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