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Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Brownlee’

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an example of what makes Italian art great: its unique blend of funny and touching. I would say that in these days when the news are so depressing all over the world, going to the theatre to see the triumph of goodness can be reassuring. In his new production for the Opéra de Paris, director Guillaume Gallienne, however, proves to be skeptical. In his view, happy ending is only for those short of memory. Here, Cinderella is serious about her intent to make herself nobler by her good actions when she forgives her stepfather and sisters, but she cannot forget. In her new found splendor, she thinks only of her sad days of abuse, poverty and unhappiness. Although this is an intelligent view of the story by a director new to the world of opera, Mr. Gallienne makes the #1 mistake of directors not acquainted with the genre: the idea that it should be rescued from its obsoleteness and stuffiness. This invariably involves keenness on naturalistic action, a decision challenged by music’s own tempo, especially in operas the numbers of which are composed in forms that involve recapitulation. Directors of the “rescuing” type invariably resort to extras with parallel subplots in order to supply some interest while the helpless tenor and soprano are singing their boring arias. When they can indeed act, keeping them overbusy is inevitable. As much as this approach requires lots of imagination and cleverness, in the end it only alienates an audience who is already used to the peculiarities of operatic staging and ready to savor everything it has to offer if given enough time to do that.

I am not sure if I like the visual aspect of the prodiction. The idea of showing this as a Neapolitan comedy is apt, and the idea of sun-soaked decayed palaces fits the plot. But there are problem is: the director does not seem to know what the Neapolitan attitude is. The singer who succeeds in portraying that is, predictably, the Italian buffo. Also, the sets are frankly ugly and adapt themselves awkwardly to the dramatic action, especially in the scenes in the Prince’s palace. Costumes are also uncharacteristic and not particularly beautiful either.

In terms of theatre, what makes this staging special is the acting of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa. She seems to have gone deeper than the director in Cenerentola’s predicament, by the way she established not only her scenic persona but as she sings it too. Her whole performance glows with a rather dark light. She has payed close attention to the text and portrays a girl traumatized by years of ill-treatment and neglect. When the Prince asks who she is and she answers she is nobody, she means it. When her stepfather says she is dead and she says to herself “They are speaking of me”, she does sound as she had already died. When she implores to go to the ball, it is a cry for help. It’s either seeing a light in the end of the tunnel or succumbing. The trauma informs even the happy scenes – her entrance in the Prince’s party is everything but flashy. The glamor has no effect on her, she has been in the dark for so long that she has become blind to it. She is there only to grab onto her last hope – the valet to the prince who had SEEN her although she was covered in ashes. Ms. Crebassa’s singing was similarly self-contained and introvert. She dealt with the coloratura in absolutely adept but unspectacular way. It had nothing of the narcissism usually associated to technical display. She sang her runs as a pianist playing a nocturne by Chopin, purely as an expressive tool. To say the truth, the part is a bit in the end of her possibilities, especially in what regards climactic high notes, but she even used that for her interpretation purposes. This Cenerentola did not explode in bright high notes, but rather relished her warm, fruity and disarming low register. I have to confess that having sung Olga Borodina in this part made me a bit immune to the charms of Mozartian or Handelian mezzos lost in this repertoire, but Ms. Crebassa made something so unique here that she will be stored in my experience as sui generis.

Lawrence Brownlee’s acting abilities are not up to Marianne Crebassa’s level. Maybe that is why the director made him use a splint on one leg as a way of portraying some sort of fragility. It might have worked, for I found him less self-conscious in his leading man routine than elsewhere.  His tenor a bit less dulcet than last time I heard him, but the trade-off came in the shape of a slightly more heroic quality to his singing. As expected, he does not even flinch before the coloratura and the very high notes. In terms of singing, however, it is Florian Sempey who deserves pride of place. His is a naturally big voice, warm and firm and unproblematic. Even if he indulges in ga-ga-ga coloratura à la Christina Deutekom, how many Dandinis actually tackle their divisions a tempo as he has done? Most of all, he is a stage animal, ready to give his 100%, as if he felt energized by the audience’s appreciation. Bravo. He partnered veteran buffo Alessandro Corbelli to perfection. The Italian bass is still in firm, flexible voice and, if he goes for all the buffo mannerisms, he does it with aplomb. Finally, Adam Plachetka is an unusual choice for the part of Alidoro. The sound is not very Italianate, but he sang his difficult aria in a rich, full voice and complete commitment.

Even if the house orchestra is not really at ease with Rossinian phrasing, conductor Evelino Pidò managed to go beyond the imprecision and thickness to produce the necessary ebullience by choosing very fast tempi that left every musician in the pit on the edge of their seats. It must be said that he was able to do that without making violence to his cast, giving them enough leeway to truly communicate… and to breathe.

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Rossini’s Semiramide is such a monumental work that many an opera house would rather not bother to stage it. Of course, the libretto requires grandiose sets, but the real challenge is to cast four exceptional singers with absolute technical finish. It is rather curious then that Caramoor, a summer festival that takes place every year in a large estate in the State of New York, has jumped at the opportunity to stage such a fearsome opera.

Since 1997, the Festival has decided to concentrate on bel canto works – and Vivica Genaux has first established her reputation as a Rossinian there. Since then, she is a special guest and I imagine that the whole Semiramide venture has probably been created around her Arsace. Although her mezzo is not heroic as the writing suggests, her hallmark metallic chest register produces the necessary impact in this lower-seating role. Her impressive control of fast fioriture and her musical imagination enable her to decorate every repeat more extravagantly than before without ever trespassing the limits of style and good taste. She also has charisma and attitude to spare in this difficult male role.

Another guest of honor is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who debuted both his Idreno and Nemorino (in L’ Elisir d’ amore) in this year’s festival. He sung both excruciatingly demanding arias with technical abandon, solid middle and low registers and effortless high notes. He too has impeccable taste – I know that many consider him Juan Diego Florez’s official “second cast”, but I sincerely doubt that the celebrated Peruvian tenor could actually sing the role better than Brownlee.

Assur used to be Samuel Ramey’s signature part and his many recordings have set a performance standard for this role. Although Daniel Mobbs does not exactly reaches this standard, he is probably the singer who has come closer to it. His forceful bass is extremely flexible, well-focused, dark, generous in its lower reaches and firm in its top notes. The sound is a bit noble for this villain role, but that is something one could say of Ramey too.

Angela Meade is something like America’s hidden secret in the world of opera. I have read about her for a while; the usual comment is “wonderful material, but still not ready” – something I could never say after seeing her Semiramide. It is clear that she has the potential to do something even more amazing than tonight; she is a young singer who has chosen roles carefully, but what she is already doing is enough to procure her the rank of the very best in the market. I feel like using the label “golden age”. The voice itself is extremely appealing – hers is a legitimate lirico spinto, creamy toned in a Margaret Price-like way with added Italianate qualities such as squillante top notes and rock-solid bottom register. When she unleashes her voice, it can be quite voluminous and, in the next moment, she dazzles in perfectly articulated coloratura, easy trills, floated mezza voce. And she also has natural feeling for the Italian language – and clear diction. Although her temper is not flashing, she knows how to seize the occasion when a dramatic emphasis is required from her. I found her phrasing expressive, she produced real seduction in Serbami ognor, grandeur in her duet with Assur and finally she was really touching in her second duet with Arsace, when she also proved to master the art of blending her voice with fellow singers. I cannot wait to see and hear her again.

Will Crutchfield is an expert in bel canto repertoire – he keeps rhythm flowing, plays all the theatrical effects and has an excellent ear to find the right pace for his singers and to help them when they need an attentive beat. Ideally, the score needs a larger group than the Orchestra of St. Luke’ s, which at moments seemed a bit strained with the effort of having to play at 100% in a long opera, but considering the acoustics (the Venetian Theatre is an open-air stage covered with a large tent, under which the audience is also seated), a chamber-like orchestra was the best idea. And these musicians played with real gusto and very much shared the dramatic atmosphere with the soloists. The small Festival chorus has also done a commendable job. I hope someone has recorded this performance – I am sure that someday one would regard it as highly as that recorded in other Summer festival in France some years ago .

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The Hamburgishe Staatsoper’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (a revival from the 1976 Deflo/Frigerio staging) has become today something like the generic version of Barbiere di Siviglia. You have seen bits of that kind of stage direction, of those sets, of those costumes, of the physical comedy touches in some Barbiere somewhere at some point. I am unable to tell how original the whole thing was in 1976, but I will not deny that it has some sort of outdated charm, especially if you want to take someone to the opera for the first time in their lives.  The two children seated next to me, for example, were having the time of their life (of course, we are talking about German children).

Alexander Winterson’s conducting had the right degree of animation, forward movement, lightness and theatricality. At first, one feels that a bit more volume would make the experience more vivid, but later it became clear that this was probably a decision to accomodate some very light voices in the cast. Sometimes, things were a bit untidy in ensembles and less fast tempi could have done the trick.

Silvia Tro Santafé’s tangy mezzo soprano sounds too formidable for Rosina. It is a sizeable, colourful voice and flexible enough (although intonation in a couple of runs were a bit approximative) for Rossini’s difficult coloratura demands. Her method involves an intrinsical use of chest voice that, although generally well knit to upper parts of her range, seems more suitable to masculine roles somehow. Lawrence Brownlee’s light and high tenor is more velvety than most tenorini’s and his ease with fioriture is very commendable. It is still a small voice that cannot part with purely healthy singing when a bit more tone colouring would make all the difference in the world, especially for someone whose short height makes his casting in leading roles a bit difficult. Wilhelm Schinghammer’s resonant bass is properly cast for Basilio, but his diction could be clear. In this aspect, the casting of Renato Girolami as Bartolo somehow exposes the whole cast. Of course, he has the advantage of singing his own language – but his diction is remarkably crystalline. His voice is forceful if a bit raw and, as almost every buffo since immemorial times, his vocal production is very irregular, as if he saved his full harmonics only for the key moments. In any case, this is a singer immerse in the right tradition of Italian comedy. Unfortunately, Oleg Romashyn was clearly below the leves of his colleagues – and he took the opera’s title role. His pronunciation of Italian language is inacceptably sketchy – overdark vowels largely to blame – and he tended to be drowned by the (light) orchestra too often for comfort. He has some rich top notes and commendable flexibility – but this is simply not the right voice for this repertoire.

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