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Posts Tagged ‘Dolora Zajick’

If someone actually paid me to write in this blog, I would say that the text I am about to write was written for the money. On writing about Verdi’s Il Trovatore, everybody quotes Caruso’s famous line that says that all you need are the four greatest singers in the world. And I won’t make an exception – I have just quoted it!  – and that is why I feel it is somehow unfair to say that this tenor or that soprano had their share of shortcomings in a work in which almost everybody – even the greatest ones – has their shares of shortcomings. But I thought that Cavalier is such a faithful reader and that he would like to read it – so here it goes. This evening, the Deutsche Oper offered the first of two concerts featuring Verdi’s rawest and earthiest opera. Although the score is often laughed at as simplistic (“big guitar” is the expression often used), it is quite puzzling how the results are rarely effective live. It is raw music, with violent percussive use of the orchestra, vertiginous rhythms and exciting ensembles with glittering effects, especially in the violins. The use of the word “glittering” is not accidental – you just need to listen to the last scene in act I in Karajan’s eccentric 1977 studio recording to see how the Berliner Philharmonic is at its brightest-sounding, its violins gleaming upfront along with singers, exactly as La Scala’s orchestra had in Karajan’s 1956 mono recording with Maria Callas. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is, of course, typically German in sound and is always at its best in Wagner. But under the right guidance, these musicians can get into cisalpine mood with the extra richness and roundness reserved for key moments. Not this evening, I am afraid. Although young conductor Andrea Battistoni is indeed Italian, he certainly did not inspire his musicians to make the southbound “spiritual” journey. I have to confess that I have never heard this orchestra so colorless in sound as this evening. The maestro jumped, gesticulated, moved about his arms and I could see no difference in animation, dynamic or intensity as a result. The powerful climaxes sounded just loud, the fast tempi mechanical, the frisson left to imagination. Battistoni is keen on keeping things a tempo – which is probably the right choice for this music – but if you are not breathing with your singers, the effect is just straight-laced and spasmodic. The chorus had sometimes problem with following his beat in tricky passages (the stretta of the opening bass aria, for example) and his soloists often had a could-you-please-give-me-some-time? expression on their faces. It had been a while since I last saw a conductor booed at the Bismarckstraße (differently from directors, who are almost always booed there), but this evening those were not isolated manifestations of displeasure.

This evening’s selling feature was probably Anja Harteros’s Leonora. Like everybody who has ears, I am an admirer of this German soprano – especially when she is singing German repertoire. The fact that hers is not an Italianate voice could be called secondary in a role where one is just happy to find someone who can actually do this music justice. Would you call Leontyne Price’s tonal quality Italianate, for example?  If I had to say “yes” or “no”, I would say that Harteros was a successful Leonora – her voice is big, warm and homogeneous, she can trill, phrases with utmost sensitivity and good taste, has listened to her Callas CDs and did not seem desperate with what she has to do. But still the style doesn’t come very naturally to her. Her interpretation is often too “intellectual” in approach (as opposed to “emotional”), her “Italianate” effects sound a bit calculated and she doesn’t do low register Italian way.  Moreover, I would say she was not at her best this evening: she worked hard for mezza voce and was sometimes a bit flat. Writing all this is a bit embarrassing – she was probably better than any other Leonora one would find in big opera houses today, but still a singer of her caliber should always be compared with the very best. And I mean it as a sign of respect. If I have to keep a souvenir of her performance this evening, this would be her direct, touching, heartfelt Miserere – her Mozartian background used to the best effect in purity of line and sincerity of expression.

Stephanie Blythe had been originally announced as this evening’s Azucena, but was later replaced by Dolora Zajick. It was very heartwarming to see how Harteros made a point on showing deference to this almost legendary Verdian mezzo-soprano (and how gracefully Zajick received it and made a point of acting likewise). If you think of how long she has been singing these impossibly difficult Verdi roles in some of the world’s leading opera houses, one must acknowledge her abilities. At this point of her career, her voice is “merely” very, very big (compared as to how gigantic it used to be, say, 10 years ago), her middle-register has recessed a bit and become sometimes rather nasal and her vowels are now and then unclear. But, whenever things become really testing, she is still admirable – she tries every trill, never recoils from singing piano, ventured into her optional high note in the act II duet with Manrico, you name it. I had seen her sing this role at the Met in a day in which she was not truly in the mood, but this evening – without costumes and scenery – she simply lived through Azucena’s predicaments, the character’s conflicts all clearly presented. And, God, her “sei vendicata, o Madre!” was dramatically, vocally, spiritually (choose an adverb and fill in the blanks here) thrilling. She alone brought the edge to a blunt performance of an opera that is about edge.

I had seen Stuart Neill before only once ages ago in a Verdi Requiem with Denyce Graves in Rio (don’t ask me when was that – I have no idea). My distant memory of the event tells me of a voice big enough and right in style in a not really musically elegant singer. This evening, in the context of his competition, I would say that – in a concert version where his bulk is not a hindrance – he is fairly viable choice for the role. His voice was built around an Italian sound, his pronunciation is extremely convincing, he sounds believably “rustic” and even has functional mezza voce. It is also true that his phrasing is a bit emphatic and not very keen on legato and his notes too often crudely finished off. Ah, sì, ben mio was not graceful or heartfelt, but Di quella pira – highly adapted, as it often is, to the necessities of the final acuto – put across its “message” (in the sense that it sounded all-right heroic and athletic rather than desperate and arthritic). If I had to be really honest, I found Dalibor Jenis’s Count di Luna the all-round most reliable performance this evening. When I saw him in Un Ballo in Maschera, I couldn’t see all the qualities he displayed this evening – a forceful, dark voice with the right touch of harshness, but also supple enough for a sensitively sung Il balen. Finally, Marko Mimika was a decent Ferrando who could do with a tiny little bit less wooliness.

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Il Trovatore is widely acknowledged as opera’s most ridiculous libretto – an opinion I do not share. If you know something about Spanish theatre, you happen to know that the idea is really going over the top – especially during the days of Romanticism. And I tell you – Spanish language does make the 100% emotionalism believable. Verdi was well aware of this – and denied no expressive tools to produce raw, gutsy depiction of strong feelings on the stage. If you try to polish the proceedings, then your Trovatore is a lost case.

I would not say that the Met’s new Trovatore is a lost case – there is a lot to be cherished there, but the overall impression is of misfiring. A new production has been ordered from David McVicar, who claims to have found inspiration in the paintings of Goya. I am sure he is telling the truth, but the staging looked just like every other Trovatore you have seen in your life. And this may mean that he was respectful to the libretto (a rare quality these days), but the politeness we could witness at the Met – that, I am sure, does not come from Goya.  One must recognise that McVicar tries to throw in some spice by adding some prostitutes to the Soldiers Chorus and by having his prima donna throwing herself on the ground, crawling and panting at the least opportunity – but everybody seemed to be working hard for intensity and also a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Intensity is something you cannot fake – if you do not have it, better go for dignity, something Italian operatic directors are well aware of.

As much as Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting showed a loving eye for the score, trying to highlight accompanying figures, to keep rhythms precise and flowing and to highlight dramatic gestures, the orchestral sound was too recessed to produce any kind of true excitement. Noseda was an attentive conductor for his singers, helping them in every moment of need – and keeping the orchestra in medium volume levels was essencial for a cast almost devoid of dramatic voices, but other maestros have been able to keep a brighter edge to their orchestral sound that keeps the sparkles going when sheer volume is impossible. I would mention Riccardo Muti’s live from La Scala, where a similar lighter-voiced casting was employed.

Sondra Radvanosky’s abilities as a Verdian soprano have always been an object of dispute.  It is undeniable that she fulfils some key requirement – it is a sizeable voice, capable of morbidezza (even if the tone is too veiled for this repertoire), flexibility, mezza voce and some stunning high notes (she took every optional in alt available and some more). However, her low register is not positive and projecting as the role requires, she is a bit challenged by trills (a fault shared by many a soprano tackling this role) and her soft singing is not always true on pitch. Her Tacea la notte was a bit uneventful and its cabaletta (reduced to one verse) was uncomfortable. On the other hand, she achieved some soaring efects in D’ amor sul’ ali rosee (although true abandon was not really there), showed real purpose in the Miserere and, a few notes barred, was quite impressive in Tu vedrai. What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, she has a good ear to find musical-dramatic effects in the writing of the role of Leonora, to chilling effects in her dying scene.

Dolora Zajick is an acknowledged Azucena and, although she was not in her best voice (the basic tonal quality seemed too nasal and somewhat recessed), she did not pull away from any challenge thrown by Verdi – she tried every trill in Stride la vampa, offered some big chest voice low notes and some really powerful top notes (she even tried a not entirely successful high c in her big scene with Manrico). Although her diction was a bit cloudy, she never refused her phrasing the necessary tone colouring and showed no problem with high mezza voce.  If I have some remark about her Azucena, it would be that, although her anguish was palpable, her madness seemed a bit artifficial and there was no sense of danger in her.

I had doubts about Marcelo Alvarez’s Manrico, soon dispelled. His medium volume lyric tenor has enough projecting quality for a big house and he phrases with such musicianship and good taste that you cannot resist him. One feels he is a bit cautious with the heroic moments, but he never produces an ugly or unmusical sound. I doubt there are many tenors around who can offer such a sensitive and dulcet-toned Ah, si ben mio these days. The problem is that Di quella pira does not come in the combo – even if the aria is transposed down a half-tone, he still feels uncomfortable about it. He commendably dealt with articulating the tricky divisions most tenor just glide through, but in order to achieve his matte high b, he had to let his interventions with the chorus unsung and the repeat was avoided. It is true that he was announced to be indisposed, but his problems with this fearsome aria seemed to be more an issue of Fach than of health.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s velvety baritone is still a treat to the ears – his stylish Il balen is an example of that – but his ease with big high notes is not entirely here anymore. He has charisma and gets away with some awkward moments – he is also the person with more panache on stage (although the stage direction reduced much of his menacing attitude).  Finally, Kwangchul Youn is glamourous piece of casting in the role of Ferrando.

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If it were possible to put Maria Guleghina and Hasmik Papian in a blender, maybe the Metropolitan Opera House would have found an ideal singer for the fearsome role of Norma in Bellini’s opera. But, alas!, life is never that simple. In any case, maybe because I had previously read all the trashing both singers have been receiving on-line, I have probably set my mind to find a positive note on their performances. And so I have. In their present shape, neither Guleghina nor Paspian could boast to be an exemplary Norma and they are even below the “but since Callas…”-excuse. That said, judging from the broadcasts of November 12th (Papian) and November 26th (Guleghina), I can honestly say that neither of them has covered themselves with shame.

It is difficult to tell which is Papian’s original Fach after all sorts of manipulation she has employed to sing roles such as Norma or Aida (incidentally, the only role in which I saw her live), but I would bet she is a lyric soprano whose former fresh-voiced self should have gone into the Desdemona-Amelia-Elisabetta slot. Her basic tone is still her main asset – hers is a pleasant velvety voice, reasonably flexible (although her coloratura is in the almost-off-track style), but whenever the line is too low, too high, too fast or requires the minimal cutting edge, the sound becomes helplessly bleached out. I cannot tell if she has little imagination or if overpartedness prevents her to employ whatever imagination she has. What is beyond doubt is that her results are decidedly bland. I disagree, however, with those who say it is better not to stage Norma with such a singer. Although she does not inhabit vocally or dramatically her Norma, she does give an idea of what the role more or less should be. Her performance is the type available in South American opera houses or German provincial theatres – it is certainly a decent if lackadaisical piece of singing.

Guleghina is a totally different case. In her performance, the spirit is all there – she evidently has a whole set of ideas of who her character is and employs all her weapons to share them with the audience. I would add she even has all the necessary weapons to accomplish her task – the problem is that either they are bit rusty or she herself should have warmed up before brandishing them after a long period of rest. What I mean is that nature is not to blame: she was born with the potential to be a perfect Norma. Her soprano has the size, the power, the range, the flexibility and the right colour for this role, but she has developed a plethora of bad habits that make it impossible for her to display any of these qualities on a consistent basis. During her performance, there is always this moments when things miraculously work – this low note is perfectly focused, that pianissimo floats, these melisme are perfectly articulated – and, when that happens, she more than delivers the goods. However, the next moment shows blurred coloratura, instable mezza voce, inaudible low register and erratic pitch.

Even if I run the risk of being thrown tomatos, I have to say that, although I find her infuriatingly imperfect, I like Guleghina. She has the generosity which is the hallmark of every great artist. The problem is that she does not seem to consider discipline part of what a devoted artist should have. In this performance, even when everything is going woefully wrong, she never spares herself – she always goes for the effect expected from her – she tries every pianissimo, she decorates her repeats, she even ventures in one or two high options. What I mean – although I prefer perfection, I can’t help being touched by sheer engagement. It is true I haven’t seen her Norma live – but I remember feeling that way when I saw her Aida and Tosca. Her enthusiasm made me fill in the blanks left by inappropriate technique.

I don’t think artists should read reviews – those are the communications between critics and the audience – but if I could presume to say anything she could read, I would tell her Mirella Freni’s wise advice: “I have always had a naturally placed voice. This is an advantage, but also a danger. When we begin, the voice is always there – or almost always. It is only later that we realise that the days when we are in olympic shape are quite rare and that technique is essential. I have the luck to love the physical aspect of singing, to have the talent to do what I call ‘engine check-up’. As soon as I feel the least tension, the least abuse of my vocal instrument, I painstakingly investigate the cause of the possible break-down and fix it”.

Last but not least, I was positively surprised by Dolora Zajick’s Adalgisa. Although she does not suggest a young innocent woman, she avoids coming up too strongly as when she sings, for instance, Azucena. Her voice is still quite flexible and her high notes are generally comfortable. Maybe she was just in better voice later in November, but I have the impression the interaction with Guleghina had a positive effect on her (also on the tenor, I would say).

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