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Posts Tagged ‘Maria Guleghina’

I understand that staging Puccini’s Turandot must seem at first a boring task – the action is supposed to take place in some sort of technicolor imaginary China, there are character names Ping, Pang and Pong who sing of a laghetto blù to rhyme with bambù, the tenor falls in love with the seriously mentally deranged soprano after seeing her for two seconds from hundreds of miles away, decides to risk his life to win her and, when there is the opportunity for a tête-à-tête, calls the murderous beauty “mio fiore mattutino” while some invisible voices sing a text my printed libretto quotes as “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”. I respect therefore Lorenzo Fioroni’s decision to try to do something different in his 2008 production for the Deutsche Oper. His opinion that violence plays a key role in the plot and that it draws somehow Calaf and Turandot to each other is intelligent (the fact that Liù’s death didn’t make him waver not a bit in his determination to woo the one responsible for it is only an evidence that the gentleman is not exactly a sensitive soul) and I like the Pirandellian atmosphere of this staging, especially the play-within-the-play-solution for the difficult execution scene in act I.  But then subtle touches of humor increasingly develop into downright silliness and by the end you’re just embarrassed that someone could have found himself clever for having designed the following closing scene: Turandot announces that Calaf’s name is “love”, grabs a knife and kills her father; aroused by the display of gore, Calaf grabs himself a knife too and also kills his own father; Ping, Pong and Pang, who are watching the whole scene from a scaffold, decide that it is probably not safe to go down at this point.

While the musical performance was entirely unexceptional, experience always counts when one is conducting in an opera house. Even if the orchestra was not in top form, the veteran Jesus López-Cobos achieved the ideal balance between sparing his singers and producing rich but not loud sonorities, something vital for the success of a performance of a Puccini opera. I havealso heard the Deutsche Oper chorus sing with more polish in other occasions, but they did sing heartily in a way that made sense with the stage direction.

When one speaks of Maria Guleghina, it is difficult to speak of perfection, but then (with the probable exception of Birgit Nilsson), when can one speak of perfection in the title role? I would say more: Guleghina is a singer whose shortcomings I find easy to forgive, since she is always ready to give her all and to try everything, even when it is not safe. Unfortunately, I never heard someone like Nilsson or Dimitrova in this or any opera live – and so far Irene Théorin was the best Turandot in my experience. If the Ukrainian soprano does not command her Swedish colleague’s ability to flash laser-like acuti (and is a less reliable in terms of intonation), she did offer an altogether more consistent account of the difficult role. Her phrasing is more fluid, her middle-register is more focused and she finds no problems in the often uncomfortable low notes; except in two or three key moments in which her voice became sour and unstable, she avoided forcing her tone and let her high notes spin and her shift to soft dynamics is spontaneous and integrated. In other words, she sounded less a harpy than most, tried to inject some aggressive sexiness in her performance and mellowed in a very vulnerable and feminine way in Dal primo pianto.

In a performance of Turandot, the Liù usually steals the show – not this evening, I am afraid. While Manuela Uhl could produce one or two beautiful examples of high mezza voce, her singing was often squally and metallic and one missed the charm and warmth a lyric soprano should evoke in this repertoire. I am afraid Roy Cornelius Smith, whom I had never seen or heard before, should have made it announced that there he was indisposed but willing to sing. His tenor sounded grey-toned and somewhat hoarse and he had often to conjure all his strength to produce his stentorian high notes. He did try to soften the tone in one or two moments, but I am convinced that the voice was not healthy enough this evening – and it is dangerous to sing a role like this in such state.

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According to the Princess of Bouillon, this is how Adriana Lecouvreur’s voice is supposed to sound and, well, I must confess that this is probably the best description of Maria Guleghina’s big, ungainly and intense soprano. Before she could open her mouth in this run of performances of  the most “telefono bianco” of Italian operas, Guleghina has been blacklisted by many opera-goers who somehow are right to expect more vocal glamour in a role which was a sort of calling card for Renata Tebaldi. That said (and I know I’ll be thrown tomatoes at for saying this), this Ukranian soprano is an acquired taste I have ultimately learned to acquire. In an age of pasteurised expression, narcisism and cold professionalism in opera, it is refreshing to see someone who is really giving it all and who seems to be actually having fun and wishing that we have fun too.  Now that the tomatoes have been thrown, I can also say that I perfectly understand whoever feels discouraged by Guleghina’s singing – she is irritatingly uneven. In one moment, she is really close to the ideal just to spoil the whole thing, with sour, metallic and overvibrant singing. But once you realise that she is the sort of artist who gets so carried away by situations that it is impossible to maintain polish, you start to “get” her. There are singers who are just sloppy, but Guleghina is not that – she is a trouper and wants to do it all. She wants to offer you pianissimi worthy of Caballé, the intensity of a Scotto, the touching morbidezza of a Freni, the warmth and power of a Tebaldi, but all that at the same time and is unvariably caught short by the fact that the absolute soprano is a myth.

Back to Cilea. The mention of these illustrious Adrianas is not accidental – at moments you could almost guess that Guleghina has carefully studied what her forerunners have done in this role – Scotto and Freni are almost a 100% certainty. And the hardwork has paid off – her ability to produce a girly, vulnerable, touching sound in lyrical and conversational passages were a definite asset of this performance. Her strong speaking voice and viable declamation of italianized Racine (praiseworthy for someone born so far away from Italy) also carried her in the difficult closing of act III. However, both arias caught her short in flowing legato and command of low register. The results were rather tentative then. Not the final duet with Maurizio – a sour top note apart, it was sung with depths of feeling and sense of line.

Although Olga Borodina’s mezzo no longer counts with the firm powerful top notes that seemed to reserve a place in the dramatic repertoire for her, she still has everything else – her voice is at once generous, warm and formidable. As many other singers, she could not find any depth in her Principessa di Bouillon, but embraced the virago cliché with enthusiasm.

Before you ask me how Plácido Domingo was in this role in which he was first seen at the Met forty years ago, I deliberately chose to see Marcello Giordani instead. Everybody takes Giordani for granted, but – believe me – he will be sorely missed when he retires. At the moment, I believe that no-one tackles the lirico spinto repertoire as consistently and efficiently as he dones. And before you ask me what lies beyond mere efficiency, I answer you that Sicilians do not need to practice on passion, they have it on their blood. As expected, Giordani was an exemplary Maurizio – the voice is natural, the top notes are firm, his phrasing is elegant, his delivery of the Italian text is crispy and his approach is no-nonsense. In act III, when he offered his best singing, he shaded his voice with no hint of effort and proved that you may still do sobbing provided you know how to do it.

Last but not least, Roberto Frontali was a firm-toned, congenial Michonnet. Among the minor roles, Bernard Fitch should be singled out for his animation. The casting for the Comédie characters could have involved more focused voices – as it was, they could barely pierce through the orchestra. In that sense, conductor Marco Armiliato could not be accused of drowning his singers, but he could not do that without avoiding a muffled quality. Cilea’s coloristic orchestration sometimes sounded simply disjointed and atmosphere was sorely missing. This is not a score that has received the attention of great conductors, but I am sure that there are hidden jewels there to be found – you just have to sample James Levine’s CDs with Renata Scotto to hear that.

When it comes to the revival of the Met’s old production, I seriously don’t know what to say – I understand that this is an opera for which it cannot be considered justified to spend lots of money with, but one expects to see something more artistic in an opera house of this level of importance. I am not saying that this should be a richer production, but only that some creative mind had spent a bit of its time on it. As it is, if you have asked my cleaning lady to stage an opera in France a long time ago, the results would have been more or less the same. No offense to my cleaning lady, but I am sure that the guys who were responsible for the revival at the Met were far more richly paid than her. Even Mark Lamos’s stage direction was bureacratic and insistent on effects that ultimately did not work.

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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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It seems the first time Arturo Toscanini ever conducted an orchestra before an audience happened to be in Rio de Janeiro in 1886. The opera then was Aida – and Aida (in concert version) was chosen by Lorin Maazel and the Symphonica Toscanini to pay him a tribute. As I have written in my comments on the Symphinica Toscanini’s Avery Fisher Hall concert with René Pape, this is an orchestra made of young musicians of which Maazel himself is the musical director. The 2007 tournée is meant as a tribute to Toscanini’s death 50th anniversary.

It is predictable that the main feature of the concert was Maazel himself. The prestigious conductor found the right balance between a symphonic reading and attention to soloists. His orchestra has an extremely polished sound and Maazel tried to cleanse the score from all vulgarity. Large ensembles looked amazingly Mahlerian in their polish and orderliness, without any loss in excitement. On the contrary: these young musicians were particularly enthusiastic and inside the dramatic action as rarely one sees in a concert version of opera. One could feel their interaction with soloists, masterly tutored by the conductor, especially in the more “chamber-like” proportions of act III. A beautiful rendition of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Maria Guleghina’s exuberant voice and personality do not fit entirely the role of Aida. Her soprano is powerful and ductile as demanded, but the low register eludes her entirely and having to produce some volume down there eventually tired the singer and her tendency to misfiring her top notes increased during the night. When sung forte, they could be below pitch. When sung piano, they could be airy and fragile. In any case, Guleghina is an intelligent, engaged artist who never cheats; her artistic sincerity and generosity steered her to the end of the opera with the audience on her side. Young mezzo soprano Anna Smirnova has all the elements of a Borodina-like dramatic mezzo in the making, but it seems she is tackling heavy roles too soon. She is a capable singer who has many tricks on her sleeves, but the fact that her powerful top notes and contralto-like low notes cannot hide a barely hearable middle register is an evidence that she should give her voice some time to develop. One can understand the seduction of singing roles such as Amneris to such a convincing and intense singer, but it would be a pity to see a talent such as hers burn out because of impatience. Walter Fraccaro is a very solid Radamés. His voice is the lirico spinto one would expect to hear in this opera and one will forgive his absence of variety and nuance in a role usually treated to overparted singers. Juan Pons’s sizeable baritone has seen better days and the most dramatic moments show him overemphatic and a bit behind the beat, but the tone is always pleasant to the ears and he has the charisma to make it work. A disappointing King Marke in Rome last year, Rafael Siwek works far better as Ramfis – his dark large bass produce the necessary authority in a role in which he does not have to be so verbally specific as in Tristan und Isolde.

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