Posts Tagged ‘Plácido Domingo’

I have to be honest: I have listened to Plácido Domingo in a Verdi role for baritone (as Simon Boccanegra in Berlin) and did not leave the Staatsoper wishing for more: although he had the low notes, his voice – miraculously, truth be said, sounded just like in the days when he was billed as a tenor and I find this puzzling. Also, Verdi knew that the baritone voice acquires a certain edge in the highest reaches of its range and used it for dramatic purposes, a device largely lost in a tenor’s voice (even in a “senior” tenor’s voice), pretty much in his comfort zone in a high f or f#. But I am in LA and I like Verdi’s Macbeth. I cannot say if my negative disposition had the effect of low expectation on my judgment, but – to my surprise – I found the experience more convincing this time. First, it is amazing how firm and healthy his voice is at his age. This might seem a trivial comment, but, no, Macbeth is not an easy role, both musically and scenically, and Mr. Domingo was able to offer an all-round satisfying performance in it. First, after so many decades on stage, he knows where his strengths lie: his Macbeth is not driven by ambition, he is not driven at all. In his passiveness and spiritual exhaustion, he comes across rather as a depressed man given a last chance. Vocally, this is achieved by the very disadvantages that marred his Simon Boccanegra for me: the roundness and ease in the part’s high-lying passages stand for an impression of apathy; the lighter tonal quality made this Macbeth less authoritative than a Cappuccilli or a Bruson. In act IV, he did seem a little bit physically tired, and he did use that too to show the character’s sucididal drive: the only drive he had left. All that said, as much as I respect what this venerable singer has done here, this was a sucess “everything considered”: a real Verdi baritone would have provided all the thrill this performance desperately needed.

For a mezzo in a tricky soprano part, Ekaterina Semenchuk was surprisingly unfazed by what she had to do. It is true that  she needed slower tempi in florid passages, but she never seemed less than confident about what she had to do. Although her self-assurance came dangerously close to predictability, she had a card or two hidden under her sleeves: such as a high-strung repeat of her toast in act II or a Sleepwalking Scene painted on a broad tonal palette and crowned by stunning mezza voce effects. A singer as gifted and reliable as Ms. Semenchuk should be an asset in every ensemble. However,  she is hardly a crowd-puller as Shirley Verrett or Fiorenza Cossotto used to be in this repertoire. If I can guess the reason, I would bet on: a) her high notes, easy  as they are, do not truly blast in the auditorium as these formidable ladies used to do; b) she is not truly an electrifying actress, but rather bureaucratically strikes some grand poses now and then. Also, although her vowels are quite dark as one would expect in a Russian singer, she has relatively clear diction. Nonetheless, her delivery of the text can be a bit unspecific. Curiously, her reading of the letter in act I was really effective.

Roberto Tagliavini’s velvety tonal quality and seamless legato made for a noble and expressive Banquo. A beautiful performance. Arturo Chacón-Cruz took a while to warm, but was up to his big aria, even if his tenor is too often fluttery and also emphatic in his high notes.

This is my first visit to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and I cannot say if the acoustics or the orchestra is to blame for the “dynamic range compression”-feeling I had during the whole afternoon. Whenever one expected the surge in volume in big concertati, I had the impression that intensity would not build up because the orchestral sound seemed basically recessed. Although this could be helpful to his cast, there were scenes that seemed a bit empty without a full orchestra to challenge these singers. Other than this, maestro James Conlon seemed fully in charge: tempi were flowing, accents were impetuous and he seemed keen on rounding all edges. He certainly listened to Riccardo Muti’s recording – and that is a good thing – but if I had to choose a word to say what was missing today this would be: edge. This is Macbeth, there is passion, murder, betrayal, ghosts, war on stage! I should add that the house chorus (in spite of lifeless Italian pronunciation, a serious drawback for the episodes with the witches), is very well balanced and smooth, the basses particularly impressive.

Darko Trenjak’s production is a bizarre affair: the single sets look as remains from the original Star Trek series, but the costumes are supposed to look “traditional”, although they are stylistically inconsistent. The witches are represented by a group of demons who look like extras from the Broadway version of The Lion King. They are supposed to be funny too, a dubious advantage in a performance of Macbeth. I could have put up with that if there had been some Personenregie to speak of. Also, the banquet in Act II was alarmingly ineffective, Banquo’s appearances lackadaisical and the lighting effects predictable and uncreative.

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Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo has been around for a long while. Although his voice sounds amazingly fresh, the kind of heroic high notes required by leading Italian tenor roles are now beyond realistic possibilities. Since low register has never been a problem for him, why not try baritone roles then? The title role in Simon Boccanegra is not Verdi’s heaviest baritone role and one could also argue that the fact that Verdian baritone parts are usually too high should not be a problem for a tenor, even one short of his high c’s and b’s. On paper, this is all true. Not only on paper – Domingo can sing all the notes Verdi wrote for Simon Boccanegra. He even sings them stylistically and expressively. But does he sound convincing in the role? I am afraid not.

First of all, although his tenor has a bronze-toned quality, he does not sound baritonal at all. His low notes, easy as they are, do not possess real depth and his ascents to high notes are free from the intense quality a true baritone has. As a result, the lighter and slightly nasal tonal quality, weird as it sounds, make the character seem younger than he should and many a climax moment do not blossom as they should. Of course, Domingo is a clever, experienced singer and profits of every opportunity to make it happen. This evening, for example, he was announced to be indisposed and took advantage of the occasional coughing and constriction to depict Boccanegra’s decaying health.

The tenor in a tenor role this evening was Fabio Sartori, whose voice has the raw material of a important singer: it has a most pleasant blend of richness and brightness and more than enough carrying power, he can produce elegant phrasing and, of course, he is idiomatic and Italianate. Some of his top notes are impressively focused and powerful. But he can be clumsy while handling all those things and, in the end, you are too often wishing that he could make this or that a little bit better. He should also try to loose some weight if he wants to take some leading man roles these days. I finally had the impression that roles like Adorno will be soon too light for him. It is not unusual for dramatic voices in the making to be difficult to handle before the whole “mechanism” find its optimal modus operandi. I am curious to see what follows.

Anja Harteros’s creamy soprano and its exquisite floating mezza voce are hard to resist and she is consistently musicianly and sensitive. She is a good Amelia, but when things get too Italianate, she could be caught a bit short. Although there is always pressure for a singer with her qualities to deal with Italian roles, I do believe she should explore more German repertoire, which shows her under the best possible light.

In spite of the odd woolly moments, Kwangchul Youn was admirably sensitive and tonally varied as Fiesco – and his low register was particularly deep and rich. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was similarly forceful and dark-toned as Paolo – and he lived up to the expectations of his role’s difficult high notes.

As for Daniel Barenboim, I am afraid that Verdian style is beyond his immense skills. The orchestral sound is too soft-centered, the proceedings generally lack forward-movement, emotionalism is kept in leash. In this sense, the conducting matched Federico Tiezzi’s entirely uneventful production. Maurizio Balò’s sets look cheap, Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes look tacky and the stage direction is sketchy, artifficial and old-fashioned. The “choreographies” for chorus members is short of ridiculous. Considering that Italy is famous for design, I guess they bought this one in a highway outlet for operatic production.

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In order to fund the old house’s renovation, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has programmed a series of concerts to raise money. Taking profit of the opportunity of Plácido Domingo’s baritone venture in Simon Boccanegra, a Wagnerian evening with star soprano Nina Stemme and conductor Daniel Barenboim was organized in the Philharmonie. However, the Swedish soprano fell ill and was replaced at the last minute by a regular in the Lindenoper, mezzo Michaela Schuster, last seen as Ortrud in the première of the new production last April.

However, before these singers could open their mouths, Barenboim treated the audience to a sensational performance of  Tristan und Isolde’s Prelude and Liebestod. As in his last performance in the Staatsoper, the conductor indulged in a considerate tempo in order to showcase the orchestra’s sophisticated phrasing, tonal refulgence and clarity. The ensuing Liebestod offered an entirely contrasting approach, almost dance-like, in which the escalating chromatic figures spiralled in clearly defined alternate dynamic effects to breathtaking results.

After a white-heat start, The Valkyrie’s Act I would finally settle into something rather less impressive. Although the orchestra was in great shape, the need to adapt to the soloist’s necessities took its toil in what regards horizontal clarity and pace. Of course, Plácido Domingo’s vocal longevity is a marvel. The tone is certainly darker these days, but the sound is still fresh. However, the tenor needed some time to prepare for his ascent to top notes or for fast declamatory passages, forcing the conductor to step on the break pedal, for the loss of fluency sometimes. That said, he seemed far more comfortable than last time I heard him as Siegmund at the Gala concert in Munich with Waltraud Meier some two or three years ago.  A colleague from the Staatsoper’s Noccanegra, Kwangchul Youn was in great voice, producing some powerful sounds as Hunding.

Michaela Schuster deserves a paragraph for herself. I have seen her only twice as Ortrud, both in Berlin and Munich, and have found her vocally no more than efficient, but tonight, in this soprano role, I was able to understand more about her voice. Free from the burden of sounding formidable and dramatic, one can see the naturally lighter hue of her voice, which is surprisingly pleasant, soft and bright. I could imagine that she would be a touching in French roles such as Charlotte or Didon. In her more relaxed self, she floats lovely mezza voce and phrases with authentic legato. When things start to get too “Wagnerian”, the usual harsh quality comes unfortunately about. Of course, when the phrase is congenial she produces some firm big acuti, but generally she attacks them in a strangely backwards placement only to focus them a few seconds later. In order to accomodate her, the conductor had often to kept the orchestra’s enthusiasm on a leash.  But that is all secondary when one considers her highly expressive interpretation. Crystal-clear diction, the wide tonal palette of a Lieder singer and a highly alert and imaginative way of colouring the text. Some moments of her performance were original and illuminating even in comparison with some very famous Sieglindes. I really wish she would give her Ortruds and Kundrys a rest and made better use of her talent for subtlety for more than a change.

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Tamerlano is probably Handel’s bleakest opera – the plot is so gloomy that even modern audiences may find it depressive: there are no light comprimario servants to make fun of their masters’ predicaments, the good guy is incredibly phlegmatic, the damsell in distress tries to save herself alone during the whole opera and even tries to get rid of the tyrant with her own hands (twice), not to mention almost everyone threatents to commit suicide until someone finally does it. Of course, Handel ensures that this is going to be a no-nonsense affair by providing a powerfully expressive score to match his best-known operas. But the bitter aftertaste is almost unique among his works*.

How to present a work as intense as Tamerlano to modern audiences largely unaware of the  code of affetti employed by baroque composers to portray feelings and sensations is always a challenge out of the context of specialized festivals and the Washington National Opera must certainly be praised by its boldness, largely explained by the fact its General Director and this production’s star tenor happen to be the same person.

Adapting an opera house orchestra into a baroque band is always something of a challenge, especially in what involves producing light textures that allow singers to project tricky vocal lines into a large auditorium without any loss in clarity. In order to achieve that, British conductor William Lacey apparently decided to play safe. The comfortable tempi were very helpful to all involved, but the sense of sameness was inevitable: arie d’affetto and arie di furie had basically the same sound. To make things more problematic, the orchestra played on the same plummy sunny sound that usually makes baroque music sound gentle and lovely – precisely what you don’t need in an opera such as this one.  If this performance finally achieved some animation, this is uniquely due to the excellent cast gathered here.

Unlike most reviewers, I had no preconceived idea about what Plácido Domingo’s Handelian venture would be like. First of all, I consider it impossible to intend to make a blind listening and disregard this tenor’s past achievements and present age. I must say right away that it is almost miraculous that a singer almost in his 70’s should be able to retain such beauty and freshness of tone. Although the part of Bajazet is not really high (baritone Tassis Christoyannis has just recorded the role for George Petrou – not in modern pitch, truth be said), its writing requires a great deal of flexibility. The problem in Domingo’s performance is precisely that he had to concentrate on the notes and the result was dramatically quite tame. Even on purely musical terms, he struggled a bit with passagework and large intervals felt also really large. Only in the closing scene, he seemed somewhat plugged-in. However, the question my ten readers are curious to ask has to do with stylistic matters and I must answer that a musician as refined as Domingo naturally has an intuitive grasp of how baroque phrasing is. His singing was generally clean and his attempts at decoration were discrete but not misguided. I really didn’t feel as if he would sing Nessun Dorma in the next minute. I would rather blame his seniority the occasional clipped high note or reluctance to scale down.

In the title role, David Daniels proved to be in excellent shape. Compared to his performance in the concert with Lisa Saffer in Barcelona, he seemed tonight a different singer. The voice was fuller, more generous in the lower and upper extremes and even more powerful. He must be praised by his variety and imagination in recitative too. Only a laboured A dispetto d’un volto ingrato (paced rather fast by the conductor) stood between him and complete success. I have to confess I am a partisan of Bejun Mehta in this role. Although he is still unrivalled, Daniels is a very commendable number two.

In the key role of Andronico, Patricia Bardon proved again why she is listed among the greatest Handelian contralto of our days. Her excitingly dark and forceful and extremely ductile and flexible voice was at home either providing caressing lyrical singing or sparkling bravura. She was positively partnered by the lovely-looking and -sounding Sarah Coburn. Her fruity creamy soprano is far richer than we are used to hear in this role – and this is all for the best. A role tragic as this requires more tone colouring than what an oratorio soprano generally offers – and Coburn never lets the audience down – she is dramatically engaged, floats high mezza voce whenever this is required, has easy trills and divisions and is also a convincing actress.

Although the part of Leone was pratically reduced to comprimario, Andrew Foster-Williams seized the moment with his only remaining aria, Nel mondo e nell’abisso, to showcase all the capabilities of his incisive and supple bass. His acting talents are also praiseworthy.

I know Irene is an ingrate role and the casting of yet another mezzo is always tricky. That said, I cannot consider Claudia Huckle in the level of her colleagues. She sang her aria di furia in a most placid state of mind and sounded contrived with her fioriture even in the very slow tempi provided by the conductor. She fared considerably better in the beautiful Par che mi nasca in sen.

Probably in order to compensate the uneventful conducting, the edition adopted in this production involves the loss of a significant number of arias and the reduction of some others to the A-section alone. I have the impression that the two orchestral interludes performed tonight non-existent in the score are arrangements of deleted arias, not to mention other small liberties.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber staged the opera in a hall vaguely 1940’s-like. Tamerlano is some kind of military dictator who has deposed local aristocracy and reduced them to the status of political prisioners. I couldn’t understand why Bajazet and Asteria are dressed as if they were characters of The Abduction from the Seraglio while the others have contemporary costumes. There was nothing like a feast to the eyes going on there, but what was shown on stage is neither ugly nor contrived. I should say that the direction of actors was mercifully economical and discrete, unlike most Handel stagings these days.

* Maybe the theme of suicide particularly inspired Handel, for the Lucrezia cantata is certainly one of his most gripping works.

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