Posts Tagged ‘Franco Vassallo’

I would be in Zürich for the Fliegende Holländer. So why not checking this new staging of Bellini’s rarely staged La Straniera? I’ve got the last ticket available and then Opera Rara’s recording to prepare myself. I had never listened to this work before, but had read ages ago a report on Diapason that made me feel curious: the black pearl among Bellini operas or something like that. I won’t lie – I couldn’t make it to the second CD. I almost brought it with me in case jet lag prevented me from sleeping at night.

Maybe (very) low expectations have done the trick, but live at the theatre I kept wondering why I had found the CDs so boring. I have some theories:

1) although it has been often performed in concert, this is an opera that has to be experienced staged. The fact that there are no big arias (the tenor doesn’t even have an aria to speak of) and that numbers are so unorthodoxly structured is explained by the fact that the composer really wanted his audience to concentrate in the drama;

2) although the Opera Rara CDs has superior orchestral playing and a conductor who is a specialist in this repertoire, the cast is problematic and “thrilling” is not the word that comes to my mind when I think of it.

Why has this evening made me change my mind on Bellini’s bleak-pearl opera? To start with, Fabio Luisi proved to have made the right decision when he decided not to make little of Bellini’s score (there are many niceties, including an aria accompanied by flute arpeggi). As the orchestra has received a “Beethovenian” treatment, singers were obliged to take the cue from the pit and that basically keep them together in an unified musical concept instead of the usual coincidence of individual ego trips. The house orchestra is far from ideal, but the fact that it was there in the center of the event made everything sound different – rare indulgent tenuti or puntature to start with. Considering that this score has many interesting harmonic twists, it is particularly good to be able to hear more than a soloist andsomeguysaccompanyinghimorher. Especially when the soloists are that good!

Edita Gruberová first sang the part of Alaide last year. I am glad that, at this point of her career, she is still willing to add a new role to her repertoire, but I am sorry that she has not done that before, for this is indeed a role that fits her voice and personality like a glove. First, the high tessitura and the long-sustained-phrase writing highlight the Slovakian soprano’s best vocal abilities. Second, the role has a dreamy, otherworldly quality that agree to her dramatic instincts. We first hear Alaide off-stage singing a sequence of ascending trills and we are supposed to be in awe – so it must be a voice with inbuilt magic, and that was we got this evening. Gruberová was in amazingly good shape – her soprano was at its luminous best, she trilled with complete abandon and was at her less fussy. I understand that, if you compare her performance with Renata Scotto’s for instance, there is going to be more than a splash of Zerbinetta in it (as she has often been accused of), but – seriously – this is a small price to pay for her technical excellence and textual clarity and theatrical imagination.

As much as in the Opera Rara CDs, the Isoletta here lacks a youthful, truly agreeable tone. At least, Veronica Simeoni, being Italian, brings an idiomatic quality that, aided by crystalline diction, made the role less a cipher than it can be. The tenor between these two ladies is the same from the CDs – Dario Schmunk, whose emphatic singing style fits his the exalted personality of his role. His voice is more pleasant heard live, when the squeezed high notes sound less edgy and the off-focus mezza voce is not devoid of charm.  A convincing performance. Franco Vassallo has developed a lot as a Bellini singer since last time I saw him – this evening, he sung with poise, elegance and sensitivity and still offered his hallmark big, firm top notes. The ensemble singers too were extremely well cast here – Benjamin Bernheim (Osburgo) sang with round tone, focused low notes and perfect Italian style and Reinhard Mayer’s rich, dark bass was shown to advantage in the role of the Prior.

Christof Loy’s staging could be called minimalistic – there is only one set, which is indeed a “stage set”, you can see the mechanisms and that this is nothing but a piece of scenery. Characters operate the ropes themselves. Costumes are stylized 19th century and everything turns around a very sharp symbology – stage ropes that double as hangman’s halters, a Romantic painting of a lake that represents Arturo’s fantasy of happiness with Alaide, black and white veils and costumes to show the parallels between the fantasized woman (Alaide, as perceived by Arturo) and the real one (Isoletta). It is not a staging that reveals any hidden angle, but that makes the story itself clear and immediate. Considering that this is a very convoluted plot, this is no small feat.


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I have to confess I was first unimpressed by Bartlett Sher’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for the Met – I thought that there was too much cuteness going on and that the sceneries did not work very well for those who were seated in the upper levels of the theatre. Maybe because my seat was very close to the stage this time, I finally warmed up to its all-for-laughs charm, especially when the level of acting was as good as seen today. The music values were better preserved this time. After a rather unclear overture, Frédéric Chaslin showed excellent control over the complex ensembles and led his soloists with helpful and attentive conducting. However, the 1,000,000.00 dollar-question will always be – how tonight’s singers compare with a cast that I myself called to be of “golden age”-quality last year?

I won’t lie – Elina Garanca cannot compete with Joyce DiDonato’s extraordinary flexibility and technical abandon, but she proves to be a worthy successor in any other aspect. Her warm and creamy (and fuller) mezzo-soprano is always pleasant in the ear, she has a solid technique for the passagework, extraordinary ease with high notes, very good Italian and is also capable of producing exquisite piano singing when necessary, not to mention that she phrases stylishly. She also possesses excellent comedy timing and a most graceful stage presence. Although DiDonato was an engaging Rosina, I believe Garanca understood that her character is a Spanish girl and offered the kind of natural sexiness typical of Mediterranean women that has nothing to do with vulgarity .

The comparison between José Manual Zapata and Juan Diego Flórez is even more unfavourable in what regards technical finish. While the Peruvian is impressively accurate in passagework (let’s not forget he would sing Cessa di più resistere without any hint of difficulty) and commands in alts as few tenors these days, the Spaniard does only justice to his runs and often lacks support both in extreme low and top notes. His trump card is the natural beauty of his voice and his good taste. While Flórez cut a more Romantic figure last year, Zapata finally convinced the audience with his irresistible sense of humor and vitality in spite of his absence of physique du rôle.

There is no doubt about Franco Vassallo’s exceptional vocalism. His baritone sails through the tessitura from bottom to top notes with impressive confidence and his adeptness with fioriture is truly impressive. He is also a funny guy entirely at ease in such a showman’s part. However, I can’t help missing Peter Mattei’s intelligent and hilarious performance, far richer in detail than Vassallo’s. If the Italian baritone displays more flamboyant vocalism, Mattei’s singing was similarly accomplished and satisfying.

Replacing an ailing Maurizio Muraro, Paul Plishka proved he still has the energy of a man half his age. I was particularly impressed by the way he mingled in such finely knit teamwork, which is the hallmark of this production, and interacted with his stage partners. His voice is still firm and spacious (actually, he was in very good voice), but the patter of his big aria will always be a test for anyone born outside Italy. Ruggero Raimondi also showed some rusty edges in the part of Don Basilio, but this singer’s amazing presence, forceful voice and dramatic intelligence never lets the audience down. I finally must point out that Jennifer Check’s exquisitely crafted account of Berta’s aria would be a serious threat to the sale of ice-cream in any opera house in the days of Rossini.

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