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Posts Tagged ‘Patrizia Ciofi’

Rossini’s first masterpiece and one of his two best serious operas (the other being Semiramide – both his first and last commission for Venice’s La Fenice) had never been previously heard in the Deutsche Oper before this run of performances conducted by the world’s leading Rossini specialist Alberto Zedda in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 1999 Pesaro production. It would not be proper to say that the house’s rather Wagnerian orchestra had limited experience with Rossini, since his comic works are regularly performed there – but one couldn’t help noticing a “German” richer and fuller sound coming from the pit. The experienced maestro wisely did not try to Italianize his musicians by force, but rather surrendered to the Beethovenian surroundings: this score sounded at its noble and warmer, with beautifully blending of strings and wind instruments. Comparisons with Zedda’s top-recommendation recording for Naxos (with Collegium Instrumentale Brugense) shows what was missing this evening: buoyancy. While the Deutsche Oper performance operated on dignified, warm sounds and Mozartian poise, the CD recording springs into life in its bright Italian-style orchestral sound, clearly articulated phrasing and energetic rhythms. I praise the conductor for finding some sense in what the circumstances presented him and I, for myself, deemed the experience as interesting as listening to Elisabeth Grümmer sing Verdi – it might not be what it was supposed to be, but it still has something to say. The Deutsche Oper Chorus, though, basically struggled with the Italian language.

Patrizia Ciofi was not an immaculate Amenaide – some top notes flapped, the low register is unsettled and sometimes you could feel that this role is a hard piece of singing – but her performance had such musical intelligence, sense of style, gracious phrasing, dramatic awareness and sensitivity that one would need a heart of stone to resist her. Moreover, she was in very healthy voice – her usually watercoloristic tonal quality had this evening such radiance that it just flowed effortlessly in the auditorium. The conductor helped her in every tricky passage and she found a virtue in the less brisk tempi to sculpt her fioriture with expressive Mozartian quality.  When it comes to the role of Tancredi, one really missed the sensational Ewa Podles in Zedda’s CDs. I have never previously heard or seen Haidar Halévy and cannot say if she was in a bad-voice day, but her performance failed to please me except in the passages in which she could sing softly, what she does adeptly (as in the closing scene – here the Ferrara “sad” ending). When she sang above piano, I couldn’t overlook the the backward placement, the lack of focus, the bleached-out sound over the passaggio and the unclear phrasing. To make things more difficult, her figure and her whole attitude do not really work for breeches-roles. When promising contralto Clémentine Margaine sang Isaura’s aria with firm, clearly produced and deliciously dark tonal quality, I really wished she had been invited for the title role. My first impression of Alexey Dolgov’s Argirio was that he was in an off-evening*, but he would eventually settle into a very brave performance of this difficult role. If his tenor fortunately has nothing of the usual nasality and brittleness of tenorini in it, it also lacks true comfort in this repertoire (especially in the higher end of the tessitura). I wonder if he should not sing Mozart more often for a while and develop a little bit more warmth and sense of expressive phrasing instead of opting so soon for a second-choice bel canto tenor career. Orbazzano is not really a big role, but it is an important one – Krysztof Szumanski could not make much of it, the voice does not really bloom and the whole performance turned around a bad-guy impersonation.

Do I need to write something about Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production? Well, if one of my eleven or twelve readers have never seen one of his stagings, I owe him or her a brief description – take one architectural background in a painting by de Chirico, costumes from Xanadu (yes, the movie with Olivia Newton-John) and the Personenregie of a Mexican telenovela and you’ll get the picture.

* Here again Zedda has a brilliant piece of casting in the sadly too-soon-retired Stanford Olsen, one of my favorite examples of Rossinian singing from a tenor.

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Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles is hardly a masterpiece, but its many beautiful moments are supremely beautiful – and when a cast that makes them justice is found, one is ready to overlook the bad libretto and the formulaic moments. When one reads commented discographies of this opera, every reviewer concludes that there is not a perfect recording of this opera because a perfectly matched trio of singers have never been gathered in a single performance. This alone would make the Deutsche Oper’s feat of presenting a superb cast even more commendable, especially for a performance concocted to replace Donizetti’s La Favorite with Elina Garanca, cancelled because of the mezzo’s pregnancy. The fact that this was a concert performance also helped to drain a bit the opera of its kitsch – and conductor Guillermo García Calvo deserves praise for bringing every musician on stage to the core of the drama. One can see when an orchestra and a chorus are really engaged – and so they were this evening. I wonder how often this score has received such rich and inspired orchestral playing as this evening. The Deutsche Oper chorus too sang it with animation and sense of theatre. I have seen this opera only once live in Rio (and Luciano Botelho was a very commendable Nadir back then) and therefore really know it from Pierre Dervaux’s EMI recording with an irreplaceable Nicolai Gedda. Without being really “scientific” about what I am going to say, I found García Calvo a stylish and elegant conductor. I am not really aware of textual differences between editions, but I have the impression that the shortened last act has been used – the whole affair involving the chain given by Zurga to the young Leïla is only hinted at and the opera ends almost immediately after Leïla and Nadir’s exit.

Patrizia Ciofi sang Leïla’s music with such freshness, emotional commitment and good taste that I am more than ready to forgive her the occasional flapping top note. It must be added that I have probably never heard any other soprano who has dealt with the awkward florid lines as coherently and expressively as she did this evening. I wonder if someone can actually sing the role of Nadir these days better than Joseph Calleja – his old-style plangent tenor fits French repertoire to perfection and he avoids any hint of Italianateness and has very decent French pronunciation. He tackles high mezza voce without any strain or difficulty, while naturally pouring a quite voluminous voice for a lyric tenor. Gedda or Vanzo had sung more overwhelmingly romantic Je crois entendre encore in the good old days, but Calleja’s account is almost unbelievably clean and easy (including the optional higher ending). The torrents of applause were so vehement that the tenor agreed to sing it again – et nous l’avons donc entendu encore! The second time more dulcet than the first – it is no wonder that chorus, orchestra and the other soloists joined the audience in cheering this invaluable Maltese tenor. To make things better, Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis was an outstanding Zurga, singing with rich, ductile tone in his warm, pleasant voice.

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I would not have believed that I would see again Götz Friedrich’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata, but I was too curious to resist the opportunity to hear Vittorio Grigolo live for the first time in my life and to see Patrizia Ciofi again (actually, I saw her once in her all too short contribution to a performance of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges conducted by Lorin Maazel in the Avery Fisher Hall a couple of years ago). Then I discovered that Leo Nucci was to sing the role of Germont, père, and all things considered I like him and was impressed by his forceful Macbeth in Vienna back in 1999.

I would like to be in Patrizia Ciofi’s mind for 10 seconds to discover why she has decided to lead her career towards Romantic roles that are invariably heavy for her delicate voice. She is an intelligent singer, with a lovely fleece-like tonal quality, clear diction and foolproof musicianship. Her intonation is so pure that some much abused phrases in the part of Violetta Valéry sounded unusually fresh to my ears. However, she lacks the low register for much of the role and has to cheat with parlando effects that soon became predictable. Also, passages that require a heftier voice too often sound tremulous and squally. The closing of Sempre libera deserved praise for the wrong reasons – although she was experiencing the horrors of overpartedness, she could nonetheless cold-bloodily manage failing resources to vocalize in the most uncomfortable vowels and more or less keeping the text, even while venturing into an uncomfortable high e flat and then closing the aria without the ah, sì usually invented to produce an extra breath pause. As it was, Ciofi would sound particularly convincing in the tender lyric moments as Dite alla giovine.

Before Luciano Pavarotti’s death, you would hardly read a positive assessment of his artistry but often a mention to the end of the era of overweight tenors – but once he was not here anymore, everyone quickly remembered the pleasure of hearing an unbelievably spontaneous voice even to the very end of the tenor range and sometimes beyond. It is most curious that some reviewers had decided that Vittorio Grigolo is the new Pavarotti, with the extra advantage that he cuts a Romantic figure on stage. Although the young Italian tenor certainly relishes the leading man routine even when the situation requires a little bit more abandon, he will have to eat far more pasta if he wants to sound remotely close to Pavarotti. The 1,000,000-question is: whence the comparison? If I had to say that there is something in common between these voices, it would be: both are Italianate lyric tenors with an immediate, natural sound and unforced projection. I had no problem hearing Grigolo’s voice, even when the orchestra was indeed loud. Which is the difference? Before Pavarotti became the world’s tenor next door, he had sung some very difficult bel canto roles, including Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani and he even toyed with Mozart’s Idomeneo. His liquid, gracious and full-toned singing of these roles inscribed his name in the history of opera. While Grigolo works hard for mezza voce, is sensitive to the text and is all-right fervent and impetuous, can anyone seriously imagine him in a Donizetti or a Bellini opera? Considering that he won’t be able to sing Radamès or Manrico, this is not a rhetorical question. He certainly has the elements of an important voice, but they are a bit chaotically handled – his voice seems to be placed in many different ways, sometimes in the same phrase; he is amazingly free with tempo (and I don’t mean in the I-know-better-than-the-composer, Caballé-like way) and the high register is often too open and unconnected to the rest of the voice. O mio rimorso was all over the place and what he sang before a tense high c was not really what Verdi wrote. But don’t mistake me – it has been a while since I’ve heard a truly pleasing-toned natural Italian tenor who also happens to have some imagination. If a more solid technique had been applied to it, I can only imagine what he would be able to do.

As for Leo Nucci, I am tempted to write about a veteran’s performance, but his voice is still so firm and powerful that he could still hold the competition to some singers in this repertoire. Of course, there are occasional rough patches and he finds it hard to soften his tone and is often wooden and unconcerned, but still, when it comes to truly “honest” singing, he gave the evening’s most commendable performance. I must not forget Andrea Ihle’s beautifully acted Annina and Jana Kurucová’s lustrous-toned Flora.

Roberto Rizzi Brignoli belongs to these conductors who likes to conduct his orchestra with frantic gestures and loud hissing. I find it distracting – and it seems that the orchestra did not warm to the approach. The louder he hissed, the more impassive the orchestra seemed to be. Although the audience understood from the hissing that there should be more passion in the music-making, the passion was left to imagination. I know, no orchestra can really have fun playing Verdi’s La Traviata, but a sensitive conductor makes all the difference of the world in this music.  I did find the flowing tempi pleasant, but the poor synchrony in the orchestra, between orchestra and chorus and some singers (following the evening’s leading tenor’s wayward rhythm is actually a feat to any conductor – and Brignoli really did his best in this department) suggests limited rehearsing. After the intermission, the performance evidently improved – the big ensemble in the end of the scene depicting Flora’s party was very well-balanced and the prelude to the last act was quite sensitively played.

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