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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Aida’

Although Poland is the birthplace of some bright starts of the operatic firmament (only last week I saw Aleksandra Kurzak and Artur Rucinski in the Royal Opera House’s Lucia di Lammermoor and, by the end of the week, Piotr Beczala and Tomasz Konieczny in Dresden), the Opera Narodowa in Warsaw is not truly stellar in its otherwise healthy and steady season.

My first visit to the Teatr Welki for a performance of Verdi’s Aida led me to an auditorium the “Ostalgie”-charm of which had the effect of preparing my spirit to a production very similar in style to the ballet that Julie Andrews and Paul Newman watch in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Then I discovered that Roberto Laganà Manoli’s staging was premiered in 2005. Let’s say that seeing Radamès die in a pink robe added a new perspective to the closing scene.

Although the house orchestra is not truly competitive (but the chorus has some very impressive basses), Patrick Fournillier seemed determined to make these musicians work for their money. His tempi were swift, his accents were bold and he never missed an opportunity for theatrical effects. Conducting an act IV with an underpowered mezzo can be tricky – but Mr. Fournillier managed to keep her hearable without ruining excitement.

Lucrezia García was born to sing Verdi – her soprano is rich yet focused, has a distinctive reedy quality, softens for mezza voce when necessary and plunges into chest voice with naturalness. She also has clear diction and sense of style – and the voice is voluminous enough. Although she has made progress since I first saw her as Elisabetta in Don Carlo some years ago in Berlin, she is still dramatically uninvolved and dangerously matter-of-fact in her interpretation. Also, her act-3 aria – even better than most – showed her overly cautious and purely concerned with producing a high c and ending it as fast as possible, the feeling mostly left for imagination. As much as everybody else in this role, she would show some fatigue during the duet with the tenor, but still produced beautifully floated notes. With a little bit more discipline and involvement, this could become a major performance, but it is not yet it.

Korean tenor Rudy Park, as many singers from that part of the world, are extremely reverent to a style of Italian singing as one could hear in Milan or in Rome in the 1950’s. In casu, he seems to be channelling Mario del Monaco in his every turn of phrase. This rarely is a formula to success, but the fact is: Mr. Park sounds like a true tenore di forza. The voice is slightly artifficially darkened, but it is still very, very big and his high notes are always firm and forceful, presiding over a loud orchestra and crowded ensembles. These are qualities hard to overlook, but I’m afraid Verdi expected this part still should sound like music, i.e., it should feature qualities such as legato, dynamic variety, tonal colouring etc. He also does look like someone who could kill a person with a stage sword, what is always a plus for a character supposed to lead an army.

Although Andrzej Dobber’s baritone has its rusty moments, his Amonasro is still effective in a raw, Tito Gobbi-like way. I’d rather not comment on the Amneris – I tried to play Stefania Toczyska in my mind during the Judgment Scene.

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Director Guy Joosten believes that the Egyptian setting is almost irrelevant to the story of Aida: there was very little knowledge about pharaonic Egypt in Verdi’s days and Verdi and his librettists were rather interested in the public/private conflicts in times of war. Although this was my first non-Egyptian Aida, I believe Mr. Joosten has a point. I did not miss the elephants and pyramids, but that’s basically where my agreement with the director ends. Everything else in this staging is kitsch, superficial, scenically messy and devoid of expression. Considering that Aida and Radames are buried alive, the giant ants are in very poor taste. Even if this was a joke (?!).

The fact that Stefan Soltesz kept the whole performance under a very tight rein – metronomic beat whenever his singers did not insist very much in rubato, dry sound palette and an emphasis rather in discipline than in interpretation – gave the performance as a whole a very cold impression.

I had seen Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth and thought that, although she sang impressively, her personality would work for better effect in a less formidable character. That was not off the mark. I am indeed surprised that this soprano was able to found an almost ideal morbidezza, truly exquisite mezza voce and a commendable sense of legato. I have the impression that Montserrat Caballé is her model for this role and her whole performance was built around vulnerability, loveliness and emotional generosity. Good as this was, it would benefit from the guidance of a truly experienced conductor and maybe director to refine her choices in terms of interpretation and some stylistic and also technical aspects (poorly supported low register, especially) to make it really special. It is definitely worth the while – in terms of facility, volume and commitment it is already top level.

There has been a great deal of replacement this afternoon. Michaela Schuster was supposed to sing Amneris, but had to be replaced by Marina Prudenskaya in the last minute. This Russian mezzo is extremely gifted in the acting department, but hers is not an Italian dramatic mezzo: volume was insufficient and there was not enough slancio to help her out. She made it – securely, it is true – by virtue of sheer physical force and technical security. As it is, praiseworthy as the effort is, it is not really more than this. The other replacement, previously announced, was Carlo Ventre, who jumped in for Roberto Alagna. Mr Ventre’s tenor is still smokier than last time and his glottal gulps and the habit of starting phrases with mm are becoming quite annoying. He still has very powerful high notes, but there is little art elsewhere. It was endearing to find Franz Grundheber as Amonaaro – his baritone still firm and pleasant, if understandably a little dry.

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Taking profit of the Japanese tour of the Teatro alla Scala, the NHK Music Festival has invited the Milanese opera house for a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida, which was actually taped (both in audio and in video by NHK). Last week, Dudamel has proved to be an exemplary Verdian conductor in a staged performance of Rigoletto. This evening he proved he can be even better than that. During the first half of the concert (acts 1 and 2), I could not help thinking of how the audience reacted while hearing to Karajan’s Aida back then in Salzburg, in the sense, of hearing a great conductor who has seriously studied the score and, with the help of a fully engaged team of musicians, produced a revelatory (even if often slightly flawed) experience. I don’t think that I will be able to explain everything I could admire this evening – the ideal balance (upfront woodwind, perfectly blended brass and strings, even in large ensembles), once again the complete eschewal of vulgarity, the always dramatically alive accent, the control of rhythmic flexibility (masterly transitions, even those usually accepted as abrupt), the singing string section and the knowledge of the right moment to become Toscaninian in excitingly precise ensembles in very fast pace. The fact that the chorus from La Scala has such full-toned tenors, sopranos and altos with rock-solid bottom notes makes it even more admirable. I mean, this was TRULY exciting.

However, if I have to be honest, burning from both ends, this candle ran dangerously short after the intermission. First, singers began to give signs of fatigue. That required some adjustments, especially in what regards volume from an orchestra playing on stage. Although the whole cast had big enough voices, some of them had a lyric quality that already required adjustments. Act IV was a lesson of how to produce exciting orchestral sound without drowning singers in voluminous orchestral sound, La Scala’s bright and flexible strings coming up handy at these moments.

I have seen Hui He’s Aida here in Tokyo last year. I understand, therefore, she was not in her best voice today – intonation had its dodgy moments, the not entirely comfortable passaggio downright problematic this evening, a very evident physical effort entirely new in my experience with this singer. The problem became more evident after the pause, but she took profit of her late entrance in act IV to recover in time for an exquisite closing scene. All that said, even by this evening’s standards, Hui He is still my favorite Aida these days: her voice is lovely, her mezza voce is soaring, her Italian is now beyond suspicion, she phrases with the mastery of portamento of a Caballé and – even if her engagement is a bit artsy – it is far preferable either to the cold cleanliness or the anti-musical, supposedly Italianate histrionics usually accepted as Verdian style. This evening’s Amneris was Daniela Barcellona, a singer I would not expect to find in this role. Although her mezzo is sizable, it is not a dramatic voice in any way. She does have very strong technique and is a singer incapable of anything unpleasant to the ears. As a result, with great help from the conductor, she offered a sensuous, dignified and elegant Amneris this evening, who managed to be vulnerable without any loss of strength in the Judgement Scene, after which the performance was interrupted for thunderous applause. For those used to the likes of Dolora Zajick, that might have sounded too elegant, but the point is: she did not tried to sing against the grain of her mezzo and thus was able to offer something convincing and coherent to her voice and personality.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León has a very solid voice, capable of some very powerful high notes, but very limited in dynamic or tonal variety. He has clearly listened to Franco Corelli’s recordings as Radamès, but cannot emulate his ability to effortlessly shift to mezza voce. All in all, his is a very unproblematic account of a difficult role, and that is no mean accomplishment. The role of Amonasro is a bit on the high side for Ambrogio Maestri, but his is a very substantial voice that produces the right impact in key moments. Marco Spotti was a stentorian if not always immaculately sung Ramfis, while Roberto Taglavini showed a bit more nuance but less volume as the King of Egypt. In the small role of the Priestress, Sae Kyung Rim showed a beautiful, clear voice.

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I don’t know how people managed their private affairs in the days of Ancient Egypt, but whenever I see Verdi’s Aida I have the impression that even Anne Baxter and Yul Brynner in Cecil B. DeMIlle’s The Ten Commandments seem more believable in comparison. By saying that I don’t mean that there is anything wrong in Aida, but I usually have the impression that a less “museological” approach tends to give all characters a more three-dimensional profile. When you drown them in pyramids, horses, obelisks etc, they tend to disappear in the context and their predicaments end up seeming very small in the context. For instance, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1998 production for the New National Theatre is basically the pocket version of the Met’s production, with the further disadvantage that the awkward Spielleitung makes it all even less convincing – Aida and Radames barely look at each other in their scenes; Amonasro conspires with his daughter 60 cm away from the Egyptian king etc etc.

The grandiosity is, unfortunately, reduced to the sets and costumes. The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra sounded rather thin throughout, brass largely dominating the ensembles. Conductor Michael Güttler should be praised by the way he kept ensemble clear, opted for an a tempo-approach and built his interpretation even with a matte orchestral sound. I have the impression that the reduced volume was found to be a convenience for the cast too and, unexciting as things tended to be, they were often clean and well organized.

Latonia Moore has an interesting voice -big, rich, creamy, homogeneous and well-focused. She has a good grasp of Verdian style and is congenial and engaged. She managed to float her mezza voce in key moments, but one noticed that this tested her breath support. Until the Nile Scene, her performance was actually very compelling, but O patria mia showed her nervous and a bit out of sorts. She did found her way back after that but one could see that she was tired. She never gave up on her Aida, but the spontaneity never really came back.

I had seen Marianne Cornetti only once as Brangäne and have read that she has since then increasingly tackled soprano roles. One can hear that in her Amneris. Although her voice has an undeniable mezzo quality, it does sound these days a bit lighter and higher than what Amneris requires. As a result, she was often underpowered in key moments and, when she should unleash powerful acuti, they ultimately sounded rather creamy than percussive. In any case, she did not go for the virago approach, husbanding her resources in a more subdued and even subtle performance. She did get away with that until the Judgment Scene.

Carlo Ventre has a pleasant voice, warmer than most tenors in this repertoire. He did not seem to be in a good day – sounding tired from moment one. Legato was not the keyword here and everything seemed a bit emphatic and sometimes blunt. When he found a congenial phrase, he could produce some very powerful high notes. Yasuo Horiuchi offered a fiery performance as Amonasro, too often rough-toned for comfort, but exciting in an old-fashioned way anyway.

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In order to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and China, Tokyo’s New National Theatre and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts have decided to expand their already existing technical cooperation to the co-production of a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (albeit rather cut, more like what the Germans call “grosse Querschnitt”) for performances both here and in Beijing.

Is Aida a role for a dramatic soprano? This is an interesting question – the range, the length, the need to project above large ensembles suggest something like that, but there is an increasing demand of soft singing and lyric quality as the opera evolves to its end. If one checks the discography and schedules of opera houses, one soon realizes that there are few real dramatic sopranos tackling the role (Birgit Nilsson was probably the most assiduous exponent in this Fach in the last 60 years), but rather what one calls lirico spinto sopranos. Hui He would rather fit into this category – she has sung a great deal of Puccini and heavier Verdi roles in the leading theaters in the world, but Aida is probably her most dramatic venture so far (it seems she is planning to sing Gioconda and Senta). Some have dismissed her Ethiopian princess as lacking power around the passaggio – but I would say that some very famous Aidas have showed the same problem (Leontyne Price, for example). Today she actually sang beautifully – her round, creamy voice projected effortlessly, her high mezza voce is exquisite, she never sang bureaucratically, but rather invested every phrase with imagination and emotion, while avoid coming across too strongly. Her Italian is greatly improved since I last saw her, and she even sounds quite “Italianate” if one has in mind the way Italians used to sing in the 1950’s. She got away with pianissimo in some very tricky passages à la Caballé – and did it with good taste and sensitivity. Given her competition, I would say she is probably the most technically assured and varied Aida in the market these days, the vulnerability playing an important part in it.

Without the Judgment Scene (Radames went this evening straight from Già i sacerdoti adunansi to La fatal pietra), it is difficult to say something definitive about the mezzo soprano. Since Kasumi Shimizu had problems to pierce through in her middle register, I would say that Amneris is a bit on her limits, but she handle her limits very expertly, especially in what regards producing big, powerful high notes. Moreover, she has a very appealing tonal quality, with a touch of Grace Bumbry in it. A very interesting voice – I wonder what she could in German repertoire. Tenor Satoshi Mizuguchi too has a pleasant voice – warm yet bright, but his high register is tight and unflowing. He got tired during the evening and, if his acuti were still very firm, sustaining them cost him a visible effort. Baritone Chenye Yuan has a tiny bit of Piero Cappuccilli in his grainy, dark baritone, but his was a tad short in volume and had his fluttery moments. This is the second time I hear bass Hidekazu Tsumaya (Ramfis) and I am again impressed with the focus and the noble tonal quality.

Although the singing was often exciting, Junichi Hirokami’s kappelmeisterlich conducting often robbed the performance of its excitement. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra’s strings could have a richer sound, and this was particularly felt when brass instruments saturated the sound picture in an almost band-like manner. The conductor did display a welcome sense of organization and cleanliness, but that was much it. One rarely felt the necessary sense of climax building (number one requirement in Verdi) and his a tempo approach often meant that soloists attempts in rubato seemed nothing but lack of synchronicity. Finally, the collaboration of both theaters’ choruses was truly praiseworthy in its warmth and homogeneity.

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The Met’s Aida is a monumental affair, and those who have seen it with monumental voices know how effective it can be. It sounds really empty when the huge sceneries have to work the magic alone while the orchestra is muted to accomodate small-scaled voices. This saturday a debut in such a fearsome role was scheduled with a singer whose accomplishment were at least to me mysterious. I cannot say how much of a good surprise Micaela Carosi is – but I am convinced that the surprise is somehow good. She has a voice in the good old Italian style – there is a faint touch of Gabriella Tucci in her lirico spinto. However, maybe because of her debut, the instrument was sometimes awkwardly handled. Act I was particularly messy – the low passaggio was clumsy, top notes fluttery and the pitch was suspect. From act II on, she found a better shape, treated her gear change more gently, focused her top notes and would now and then pull out some stunning things. Fortunately, most of them in act III. It is a pity she deemed unimportant to see to her mezza voce in the closing scene – she had sung some beautiful floating tones before that.

Olga Borodina was clearly not in a good day as Amneris. Until mezzo forte she seemed pretty much herself. Forte passages in the high register found her bleached-toned and laborious. Granted, her large velvety mezzo is not exactly the one for Amneris, but in her good days she certainly is able to prove she is more than Ersatz in this opera.

Replacing an ailing Marco Berti, Stephen O’Mara had a rather testing debut as Radames. Although his voice generally stands the heavy demands made on it by Verdi, his tenor seemed to have been beefed-up for German operatic purposes. As it is, the sound is coarsely dark and secure but top notes tend to be tense and there is very little sensuousness in it. Juan Pons may have the world’s record in the role of Amonasro. At this stage in his career, he has to disguise the strain with studied overemphasis, in which he succeeds to a certain extent. Both Vitalji Kowaljow as Ramfis and Reinhard Hagen as the King have spacious beautiful voices.

Kazushi Ono presided over an elegant performance in which he clearly was trying to make his singers’ lives easier. As a result, there was a certain economy with fortissimos and unfortunately also less impact. It must be pointed out that the ensembles were unusually clean and transparent, what is always praiseworthy considered the scale of the event.

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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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