Maria Stuarda loses her head on the eve of 2013

“I had a dream my gala would be/So different from this pilgrim dress I’m wearing…”

One of the less-noted trends of the Peter Gelb era has been the renaissance of bel canto (and bel canto-adjacent) opera at the Met. So far we have had new productions of Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La sonnambula, Armida, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Le Comte Ory (as well as Don Pasquale just before Gelb’s regime began). To this list you can now add Maria Stuarda, the middle installment of a Donizetti “Queens” trilogy directed by David McVicar. (This began with Bolena last season, the final entry will be Roberto Devereux, reportedly featuring Sondra Radvonovsky next season.)

I think bel canto has proven compatible with two of Gelb’s artistic priorities: star casting and slick but literal-minded storytelling (the latter often in the guise of “accessibility”). Most of these productions have been sold on the fame of their casts. Many of the operas themselves have colorful settings and no obvious complicating social or metaphysical angles (Mary Zimmerman’s high-concept Sonnambula was an exception in this regard). They are primarily showpieces. But for this rep to be anything more than routine and mundane you need real star quality singing and charisma. Unfortunately only a few of these productions have found the people capable of that.

Maria Stuarda is OK, but there’s still a certain fire missing.

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda. Metropolitan Opera, 12/31/2012. New production premiere directed by David McVicar with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Leah Hausman, conducted by Maurizio Benini with Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda), Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta), Matthew Rose (Talbot), Joshua Hopkins (Cecil), Maria Zifchak (Anna).

I guess you have to give David McVicar some credit. Unlike quite a few Met directors, he definitely knows what he is doing and rarely produces the giant “WTF?” moments many other recent stagings have induced. But he hasn’t been very inspired recently, either, and this production is no exception.

McVicar’s Maria Stuarda production is more colorful and flashy than last year’s Anna Bolena, but otherwise similar. The costumes are exaggerated period with some tweaks of design and color, the sets minimal and austere. (Both are designed by John Macfarlane.) We open with a big old party, a convenient place for McVicar to stick his compulsory acrobats. But almost everyone is wearing pure white, which cuts down on the bacchanalia factor.

The rest of the evening is less busy, with about one striking thing per scene while the rest is by the book. Queen E wears a wide red skirt that opens like curtains to reveal pants (performing masculinity oh so subtly) while her rival Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and her cohort dress in plain black. There are a few strong images: the tiny windows of Mary’s prison, the backdrop filling with the orders she wrote when she was queen, and her sad end, in which she reveals a red dress for her final ascent to a giant executioner. (This executioner is, by the way, fully clothed–where is the McVicar of yore?)

McVicar and the cast create a stark contrast between serious, gracious, and feminine Maria and cranky, assertive Elizabeth, the latter adopting a lurching gait and little royal dignity. (I don’t remember the opera’s Schiller source, which I saw in an excellent Donmar Warehouse production a few years ago, as nearly this unsubtle.) Maria is meant to excite the most sympathy, but is shorted on exposition and backstory, and in this production rarely appears more than mildly perturbed. Elisabetta is a far more interesting character, and here developed much more vividly. She has a country to run and alliances to make. Who really cares for this plain imprisoned lady who only occasionally works up a decent curse?

The production is, as a backdrop, perfectly OK. It would be fine as a frame for brilliant and passionate performances. Unfortunately we didn’t really get those and it remains kind of weak sauce. Both ladies are miscast and neither projected on the grand scale required.

This was conceived as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. While the role of Maria Stuarda is usually sung by a soprano, some transposition makes it workable for her mezzo. There’s a long history of this kind of transposition, I don’t object (though in the final scene having a true soprano floating above is more effective), but DiDonato just doesn’t seem right even when it has been lowered. While she sings the notes with exemplary musicality, expression, and taste, her sound is more thin than plush, which in this kind of thing is a problem. Under pressure her tone acquires a pronounced bleaty vibrato, at soft dynamics the vibrato disappears entirely. And her intonation is (or was in this performance, at least) highly problematic, tending flat towards the ends of phrases and in cadenzas wavering all over the place. Sometimes she caught it and corrected but I found it a constant distraction preventing me from ever becoming immersed in her performance.

I wasn’t terribly convinced by her acting, either, which seemed too mild to play up to me in the Family Circle. A few big moments–that curse–were staged as Dramatic Actions, but then her voice didn’t really back her up. Maybe it was more convincing closer up, but she never convinced me of her star-ness. I’m sorry to pile on but these are pretty serious issues for a major singer in a new production.

Elza van den Heever gives a striking performance as Elisabetta, with a variety of impressive costumes, but her hip-swaying is more Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth than it is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. I did appreciate her spirit, though, and she takes far greater dramatic risks than DiDonato appears to. Her voice lacks the sheer tonal beauty and evenness between registers to be ideal for this repertoire, and has a very prominent vibrato. But it’s certainly an interesting and compelling instrument, very powerful at the top and well-controlled (impressive coloratura for such a large voice), and it will be interesting to see how she develops (possibly in a Wagner-Strauss sort of direction?).

Matthew Polenzani is better as Leicester than he was as Nemorino in the fall. He is vocally impeccable, with a far wider tonal palette than either of the ladies, and the voice is just the right size. The older, more established Leicester is a better fit for his personality and age than goofy young Nemorino was. But the role is basically standard tenor posturing, and he never really got a big star moment. The supporting cast was competent but bland, with none sticking very strongly in my memory. The chorus, though, was fabulous, and made the music sound far better than it deserves to (bel canto choruses are, I must admit, a pet peeve of mine–so boring!), and Maurizio Benini’s conducting seemed perfectly fine to me, certainly better than his work in Elisir.

But there’s nothing here that holds a candle to Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena. I’m sure it will satisfy Joyce DiDonato fans, because there is indeed a lot of Joyce DiDonato, but to me it was rarely more than middling. Since bel canto is not really my preferred variety of opera, my standards for enjoyment may be unduly high, but this one didn’t draw me in.

Maria Stuarda runs through January, with the inevitable HD broadcast on January 19.

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The Met’s new Mehlisir d’amore

Are you DELIGHTED yet?

For a repertory performance, this Elisir d’amore would not have been all bad. The singing is decent and the story happens, though the beats fall haphazardly. But this was a new production for the Met’s opening night, which requires confronting the reality that a lot of people thought that making this thing from scratch was a good idea, and put a lot of time, craft, and money into it.

The ideal seems to have been to create something as mainstream and inoffensive as possible. In practice, this means the production has all the appeal and originality of a suburban shopping mall (whose multiplex probably plays The Met Live in HD). There’s a ritual aspect to opera, particularly live performance. There are certain thrills we want to experience, together, over and over. But new productions are for, you know, new stuff, and to come up with something as cookie cutter as this you have to be really actively opposed to creativity.

In other news, I love you, Trebs, but stop kidding yourself.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore. Metropolitan Opera opening night, 9/24/2012. New production (premiere) directed by Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Conducted by Maurizio Benini with Anna Netrebko (Adina), Matthew Polenzani (Nemorino), Mariusz Kwiecien (Belcore), Ambrogio Maestri (Dulcamara), Anne-Carolyn Bird (Giannetta)

L’elisir is a human comedy that has to find a way to balance sincere emotion with slapstick, and deal with the fact that its hero Nemorino is, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed. (I think this is why most productions keep the setting rural and full of peasants. Those country people are dumb!) This production preserves the traditional rustic Italian setting, though the set is blown up to almost Zeffirellian proportions. The stage is framed in a false proscenium that fulfills its promise to portray only a storybook—these are faultlessly clean and well-dressed peasants, with a generous touch of opera’s favorite time period, Slutty 18th and 19th Century (it’s like the 18th or 19th century, only with more cleavage). There seem to be both farm folks and town folks, but I couldn’t figure out why. Anna Netrebko’s Adina does wear a top hat, and an outfit with a red skirt and belt that led some people in front of me to conclude that she was “a gypsy” (sic).

Many of the sets are flat cutouts. The maze of buildings, wheat and many unidentified objects reads very badly from the bird’s eye view of the Family Circle, I can’t really tell you much more about what it looks like. (To paraphrase Mitt Romney, those trees are not the right height). But while the sets speak of Italy, the lighting plot is of Sweden in December. Gratuitous follow spots pop on and off randomly, and it always looks like sunset. I tried to figure out how much time was passing between scenes and what time of the day it was supposed to be, and I had to give up.

 Sher portrays Adina and Nemorino on close terms from the start, getting physically intimate with each other even before the elixir is involved. But it’s not consistent, and Sher prefers everyone to constantly run around and fall over a lot rather than anything genuinely emotional or constructing a convincing through-line. And since they started getting in each other’s faces, unless you have some detail there’s nowhere you can really go. (I was in the Family Circle, FWIW.) But for all the broadness there is little that is funny here. And if you’re going to make this a psychological drama you have come up with characterizations a little more distinctive than these. Belcore is not as over-the-top as usual but nor is he anything more than a guy who comes on and sings an aria. I guess you can choose to pass up comedy if you like, but to have such wonderful opportunities as Dulcamara’s aria, Nemorino opening the elixir bottle, and the gondola girl song pass with hardly a laugh makes the whole thing even more confusing and bland.

This may have been partially due to a certain lack of star wattage. Anna Netrebko is a treasure but has a hard time wrapping her increasingly big, dark voice around this light part. While the results were sometimes interesting, and the sound is pure gorgeous, her pitch went flat sometimes and this voice in this role is, despite her aggressively flirty acting, matronly. As for that top hat, I don’t know. It makes no sense, though it isn’t alone in that regard. The stage desperately needed lighting up, and she wasn’t quite enough to do it.

Based on Matthew Polenzani’s sound, you’d think he should be more famous than he is. But considering the whole performance his place seems, as cruel as this might sound, about right. He has lovely technique and smooth liquid tone, sounds Italianate enough, is musically tasteful, and can sing piano like nobody’s business. But he is completely, utterly lacking in charisma. (That only one of these photos features him is not my fault but rather the Met website’s. Maybe that means something.) Nemorino might not be a glamorous guy but he’s the hero and you have to be rooting for him. Polenzani is just this dude singing, and his dramatic ritardando at the end of “Una furtiva” was immaculate and accomplished yet empty.

Mariusz Kwiecien sang Belcore cleanly but sometimes has a bit of strain in his voice in the higher ranges. Ambrogio Maestri is a big man with a big voice and is very Italian and would thus seem ideal for Dulcamara, but despite booming it out just fine (with an excellent upper register) never seemed to have the personality to match his other attributes. Anne-Carolyn Bird’s Giannetta chorus scene was beautifully done, featuring several of the most elegantly shaped phrases of the night.

Maurizio Benini kept to the tradition that Elisir d’amore should only be conducted very, very badly (see my records on this—yeah, I like this opera and go see it a lot, we go back, Elisir and I, and for the record my production was cuter than this one and I still have the bottle of elixir sitting on my bookshelf). Coordination was faulty in the chorus preceding Dulcamara’s entrance, the tricky concertante that closes Act 1, and several other spots. In general Benini seemed content to let the singers do their thing and not make anything too exciting or dramatic.

Alas, this seems to have been everyone’s mission. Doing anything that hadn’t been done before doesn’t seem to have been on anyone’s mind. It’s less twee than most of Sher’s other work for the Met, but it’s slapdash, superficial, and hella boring. I think I’d actually prefer to see Otto Schenk’s Vienna production, which isn’t any more innovative but at least doesn’t bury its characters in sets and shadows. If opening night sets the tone for the rest of the year it’s going to be a long, long season.

On the way home I tried to think what would make me want to see this thing again and I came up with the following casts:
Marina Poplovskaya and Lance Ryan
Simone Kermes and Johan Botha
Nadja Michael and the sax/flute player from the subway
You might gather I think this production needs an infusion of weird energy. Putting together a certifiably insane HIP diva and an immobile Heldentenor might not be kind to Donizetti but it would sure be something different. Any further ideas?

Should you wish, this production is on for the next while and on HD later.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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La fille du régiment marches again

Laurent Pelly’s whimsical production of Donizetti’s fluffy La fille du régiment is impossible to dislike. I unexpectedly went to the last performance of its current Met run last night and was again charmed. The plot of an army mascot in love and her many protective parents (both the entire regiment and her newly-rediscovered blood relations) is sweet, the music is bouncy and tuneful, and the characters are so good-hearted and adorable that they remain likeable through the heavy layer of schtick conferred by Pelly’s production. When I saw the premiere cast in 2008, I found the show a little on the slick side (here is my review from back when I was a baby blogger), but this time I think it’s a winner through and through. The choreography keeps things cute and fast-paced, and the gags work, but Pelly never forgets to use them to define the characters first–when the haughty Marquise de Berkenfield thinks the praying peasants are saluting her, or when Marie bounces onstage wearing suspenders. The set of maps is vaguely representational and fills the stage, everyone dances periodically, and the soldiers are the most harmless lot you’ve ever seen. Lord knows what war figures in this slightly updated production, but does anyone really care?

Unlike the premiere’s Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, the current cast doesn’t have the slightly empty look of people who have rehearsed very, very well, and they are a little more sincere. That’s a gain, but unfortunately the same star power just isn’t there. Nino Machaidze sang serviceably, but her laser-bright tone was unvaryingly loud and she lacks the agility to make the coloratura sparkle rather than just come out. Her Marie doesn’t have the quicksilver gamine quality of Dessay, but her more forceful, brassy acting worked well too. If only her spoken dialogue had resembled French.* Lawrence Brownlee made a suitably adorable and boyish Tonio and his warm and round sound has more appeal than Juan Diego Flórez’s, though he lacks some of the latter’s charisma–his final entrance on a tank in particular just didn’t have that incredible sense of ridiculous triumph. I’ve never really understood the appeal of the famous string of high C’s in “Pour mon âme” (when it comes to extreme tenoring, give me a good “Vittoria!” any day**), but Brownlee dispatched them with élan. Elsewhere, Ann Murray was hilarious as the Marquise of Berkenfeld, though her voice is showing its age and is very uneven. Maurizio Muraro was an amiable Suplice. Kiri Te Kanawa displayed her underrated comic skills as the Duchess of Krakentorp and still sounded like herself in an aria from “Le villi”. I missed Marian Seldes’s “he’s on the bobsled team!” line, though.

The orchestra and Yves Abel got off to a rough start in the overture, with a lone violinist coming in smack in the middle of a dramatic pause and some other coordination issues, but the rest proceeded smoothly enough.

Between this and today’s webcast of L’elisir d’amore from Munich (in David Bösch’s surprisingly poignant production), it’s the Weekend of Adorable Donizetti, apparently.

*However I do recommend her Lobiani recipe in Die Oper kocht. It is excellent.
**After writing this I went back and looked at my review of the premiere cast and I said just about the exact same thing. At least I’m consistent!

Donizetti, La fille du régiment. Metropolitan Opera, 1/6/2012. Production by Laurent Pelly (revival), conducted by Yves Abel with Nino Machaidze (Marie), Lawrence Brownlee (Tonio), Ann Murray (Marquise of Berkenfield), Maurizio Muraro (Sulpice), Kiri Te Kanawa (Duchess of Krakentorp)

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Anna Bolena at the Met: the dress rehearsal report

This year’s opening night at the Metropolitan Opera will be a new production of Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko. I saw the open dress rehearsal today. Like when I saw her sing the role for the first time in Vienna in April, it’s all her show, and it’s a real star turn. But unlike in Vienna, the rest of the cast is solid and David McVicar’s production is a class act. I’m not going to be too critical or specific regarding the singing in a dress rehearsal, but here’s an idea of what we’re getting.

Donizetti, Anna Bolena. Metropolitan Opera final dress rehearsal, 9/22/2011. New production by David McVicar, conducted by Marco Armiliato with Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena), Ekaterina Gubanova (Jane Seymour), Stephen Costello (Percy), Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry VIII), Tamara Mumford (Smeaton).

This is the first time Anna Bolena is being performed at the Met. The story is fairly familiar to English speakers and/or fans of The Tudors: bass Henry VIII is tiring of his soprano queen Anne Boleyn (Wife #2) and is eying her lady-in-waiting mezzo Jane Seymour. Through a combination of bad luck and a stupid tenor ex-boyfriend named Percy, Anne is convicted of adultery and sent to the chopping block, so Jane can become Wife #3.

Back in April I already liked Anna Netrebko’s Anna Bolena quite a bit. Since then she has only grown, keeping the intense sincerity and glamor but adding a great deal more dramatic specificity and complexity. Her Anne Boleyn is a character of real strength, grandeur, and vulnerability at the same time, conflicted between her husband and ex, treacherous lady-in-waiting, and so on. Her voice is as luscious as always, and easily fills the Met without pushing; in this morning rehearsal she took a while to warm up, but improved steadily to a magnificent final scene. In a word, a fierce portrayal. I can’t say I like this opera too much, really, but if you like singing I think it’s worth seeing just for her performance.

The supporting cast is on the whole somewhat preferable to that of Vienna, with Ildar Abdrazakov’s imposing, solidly sung Henry VIII as the standout. He also gets the production’s best costume, in which he looks like that painting of Henry VIII you are seeing in your head (he must be wearing a lot of fabric, he’s not that wide a guy). Indeed, Netrebko showed considerably more chemistry with him than she did with her supposed beloved, Percy, given a rather awkward portrayal by Stephen Costello. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Costello (I first saw him way back in his AVA days, though I never did write the detailed review I promised here) and this time the tone color of his compact tenor reminded me of a more lyric Juan Diego Flórez. Ekaterina Gubanova was a very, very Slavic Giovanna (Jane Seymour), but one with force to spare and some nice musicality as well. Actually, the voices fell into two distinctly national categories: the dark, somewhat thick Slavic ones of Netrebko, Abdrazakov, and Gubanova, and the more clear-toned Americans Costello and Tamara Mumford as Smeaton, whose gorgeous, graceful singing here maybe will finally get her the breakthrough she deserves.

The chorus continues to improve and the orchestra sounded fine. Marco Armiliato was the reliable Kapellmeister he always is. You’re probably not going to go out thinking “wow, that’s some conducting,” but he gets the job done smoothly.

If it hadn’t been for a bloody Smeaton stumbling around in Act 2 and a threatening executioner at the very end, I may never have guessed that the production was by David McVicar. There are almost none of the familiar McVicar clichés: no odd dancing, no naked guys (despite the Tower of London prisoners’ uniform of buttonless shirts and Elizabethan Bermuda shorts), no mini theater. It is about as traditional as it gets. Robert Jones’s sets are minimal, a few pale stone walls, an elegant paned window, and a vaulted ceiling. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are elaborate and scrupulously period with many pearls and square necklines except for their predominately black and white Pilgrim chic color palette (with some more color towards the end, according to no logic that I could see). Paule Constable’s lighting is painterly and sometimes quite dark.

It’s a well-crafted production; McVicar is a master of directing singers in a way that focuses each dramatic beat to clearly tell the story. We always know what is happening. The movement is musically sensitive, the many choruses are handled with aplomb, and when standing still downstage belting it out is what’s required, that’s what we get. It’s unusually well paced and seemed hours shorter than the limp Vienna production. Overall it’s the best traditional production I’ve seen at the Met since, well, McVicar’s Trovatore (when it was new). But he’s capable of much more perceptive, interesting and creative work than this, and I wish we had gotten some of that instead; I expected more out of him than what we get here. It’s true that it’s not a great libretto and doesn’t present too many opportunities, but still.

One staging cliché McVicar does fall into too often is the old bel canto turn-around. “I was just leaving, but this new, faster accompanimental figure started up and I thought I would dramatically spin around and sing a bit more, OK?” He uses it a lot. It’s effective, but on the twentieth time, not as much.

I can’t imagine “the olds” who hold their conservative sway at the Met finding anything to object to here, there is even use of the stage elevator (which broke down and occasioned a 15-minute delay today) and some Irish wolfhounds led around in the hunting scene. There are a few touches that seem carried over from the Vienna production: the child Elizabeth I again makes a cameo appearance (this time in the first scene rather than the last), and once more Anna fussily pulls her hair up at the very end of the opera to better expose her neck. But it’s that neck that’s the important thing here, or rather the voice that comes out of it. Much of this show is more highly professional than exciting, but Anna is magic.

Anna Bolena opens on September 26 and will be broadcast in HD on October 15. I will add some more photos when I find them.

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe/Met Opera

Video: Anna Netrebko sings “Coppia iniqua” in Vienna in April (NOT the Met’s production!)

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Anna Netrebko sings Anna Bolena, keeps her head

It must not be easy to be Anna Netrebko. The hype surrounding her role debut as Anna Bolena last night was enormous, complete with absurdly priced scalped tickets and no fewer than three camera crews checking out the standing room line. Bless her heart, she delivered, and how! But the Wiener Staatsoper, the beneficiary of her fame and accomplice in all this hoopla, had the temerity to make her do all the work herself. Strong voices in the supporting roles failed to catch fire as Netrebko did, and Eric Génovèse’s life-suckingly dreary concert of a staging is something that any house in the world should be ashamed of.

Donizetti, Anna Bolena. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/2/2011. New production premiere by Eric Génovèse, sets by Jacques Gabel and Claire Sternberg, costumes by Luisa Spinatelli, lights by Bertrand Couderc. Conducted by Evelino Pidò with Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena), Elina Garanca (Giovanni Seymour), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Enrico VIII), Francesco Meli (Percy), Elisabeth Kulman (Smeton).

It’s hard to believe that this listless production is actually new. The static poses and stock gestures are straight out of your standard minimally rehearsed rep night. Actually, some of it is worse. What did they do for four weeks of rehearsal? And the drab visuals don’t help either. But let’s talk singing first, because that’s what this thing has going for it.

Anna Netrebko was in beautiful voice for her big debut, her ever-growing sound luscious, luminous, and possessed of a rare, unfakeable inner drama. Her efforts in bel canto repertoire are often described as sloppy and unrefined. I am perhaps a poor judge of this because I am not a particular fan of bel canto singing as an abstract musical art, and what is described as wonderful I often find studious and emotionally detached. None of that for Netrebko, who has remarkable presence and dramatic honesty, and tears into the music with abandon. She can go from the delicate, deep despair of the “Al dolce guardami” to sing “Coppia iniqua” in a way that makes you think that if she did decide to take vengeance, no one in the theater would be left alive. I love it. (Listen to her “Coppia iniqua” at the bottom of this post.)

But I think even diehard bel cantanistas would find rewards in her singing here, particularly her wide range of dynamics and gorgeously floated high notes. That plus dramatic intensity? Magic. The coloratura was mostly clean if not typewriter-mechanical and she showed a respectable if slightly unreliable trill and judicious use of chest voice. I can’t give you a rundown of acuti and cadenzas but she sang a good high D at the end of the first act and the cadenzas sounded like advanced level bel canto to me, not simplified. Sometimes her phrasing could be more immaculate, her sound a little more even, her coloratura clearer (her weakest point is descending scales). But slight imperfections are a small price to pay for her passion and commitment. I expect she will grow in the role with more experience and a stage director who is competent and can help her develop the character a little more, but she’s already very good, and a real star in an opera that requires one.

By the way, I do not mean to set up a false dichotomy between bel canto with perfect technique and bel canto with passion. But that’s sort of how it turned out at this performance.

Namely, if you prefer Elina Garanca’s Giovanna Seymour to Netrebko’s Bolena, you would be in the technique department of the School of Bel Canto Appreciation. I found Garanca a well-sung bore. The notes were all there, sung very cleanly and evenly with apparent enthusiasm, but her voice is too metallic and chilly for this repertoire. She lacks roundness, and sounded more like a soprano than a mezzo. She appeared to be doing the right things, musically and theatrically, but it was always that, an appearance, while Netrebko seemed to be living it. For all her considerable talent–she has a wonderful voice and is in all technical respects an extremely accomplished singer–she lacked any sign of personality or individuality. In pure decibels and accuracy she outsang Netrebko in the duet, but theatrically the scene did not ignite because the emotion seemed to be only on one side.

Local favorite Elisabeth Kulman also does not have the most individual timbre, but in the pants role of Smeton her chocolatey tone and stylish phrasing impressed me more than Garanca. A former soprano, she also sometimes sounds sounds like a soprano with low notes, but the considerable range of the role offered her no difficulties from low to high. And she did much more with the text and got the straightforward intensity right.

On the male side of things: As Percy, Francesco Meli gave an uneven performance. There were moments of liquid Italianate beauty in his singing, but they were mixed with too many ones of strained and wobbly tone above the passaggio, though he improved as the opera went on. He has a good idea of the style and tried to match Netrebko for passion (though he is a stiff actor), but the voice is coming apart a bit, I fear. As Enrico VIII Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was well cast and sang in a perfectly fine and correct way, but failed to impress me one way or another, which is probably more due to my general bel canto indifference than him (note that the picture below shows Giacomo Prestia as Enrico VIII, who sang the dress rehearsal).

Evelino Pidò’s conducting was acceptable. The large-scale pacing was good, but sometimes it was inflexible and lacked nuance. The orchestra is notorious for not liking bel canto, but generally did a good job, with the exception of an overloud and sometimes ill-timed brass section. The trombones in the overture sounded like they were ushering us up to Valhalla, not through Donizetti. The chorus sounded very good, though their staging was awkward.

Eric Génovèse’s production is frankly a disgrace, so static and dramatically ineffective as to drag some excellent singing into its mud. Not even the most basic actions have been taken to stage the drama, to an extent that drained energy from the entire evening. The set is a rotating room of flat black walls with many doors or windows that open and close with vertically sliding panels that resemble garage doors. Occasionally a cyclorama of trees in the background is revealed. The costumes are abstract period with reduced ornamentation, volume, and structure. The women are dressed mostly in metallic taffeta, which often gets rumpled, making them look like they are all wrapped in tinfoil, or in the curtains of a hotel with more money than taste. Netrebko wears a different dress in almost every scene, though, so there’s that. It looks unfinished, particularly the set, and gives no atmosphere whatsoever.

No direction of the singers could be seen. Everyone stood stiffly in place, singing auf die Rampe, as they say here, the kind of dramatic downstage park and bark that should be reserved for a few dramatic solo moments or occasional big ensembles, but here was the only show in town. Occasionally they spin around dramatically, or wave their arms* and cover their faces with their hands (I didn’t always want to watch either). Netrebko visibly struggled against the static tableaux, swaying back and forth, leaning, and stretching her neck, attempting to do something, anything to establish a character. The lack of drama in the staging seemed to only magnify Garanca’s lack of engagement with the text, and she proclaimed to Enrico that she wanted love and renown as if she were asking him to pass the salt. The staging also failed to establish relationships between the characters, who often didn’t even look at each other at key moments. Oh, Anna does get to kiss Smeton, which could make sense, but here it really doesn’t. And there’s a cascading curtain effect that seems to be borrowed directly from last week’s Elektra, where it fit the music better.

The only bit of creativity was at the very end, where Anna gets to hug her kid (Elizabeth I) and finally beheads herself with a big red robe and one of those descending garage doors. It’s not exactly a masterstroke of staging but rather better than anything else found in this reactionary sung concert. Far be it from me to suggest that they would have been better off with borrowing from The Tudors miniseries (on the record as an Anna Netrebko favorite!), but, well, actually, no. I am going to suggest that. This production is dramatically moribund. Every bodice is left unripped. Something trashy and sleazy would have been infinitely preferable. Adultery and forbidden desire shouldn’t resemble an assembly of a mourning if shinier than average Puritans. Where’s the sexiness? You’ve got Anna Netrebko, for goodness’s sake. That’s a major opportunity, sexiness-wise.

Needless to say, I am now quite looking forward to David McVicar’s production at the Met in the fall, which will also star Netrebko and Garanca. Should I send him some Tudors DVDs? No, I really don’t think he needs them.

You can catch this Viennese production on ORF and Arte on Tuesday, April 5 at 7:00 p.m. Viennese time, and at various movie theaters. If you are in Vienna but can’t get a ticket, it will also be broadcast onto the big screen on the side of the Staatsoper at almost every performance.

As for the media circus, its most memorable exemplars were the visits to the standing room line of both current intendant Dominique Meyer (friendly and bringing coffee and pastry, a very nice gesture, and recorded by a film crew making a documentary about standing room) and later former intendant Ioan Holender, orangish in complexion and magisterial in bearing, uninterested in chat and accompanied by his own TV crew (and no pastry). The third film crew was from state network ORF and was surveying the relative popularity of Netrebko and Garanca among standing room waitees. (Most people seemed to reply “what a stupid question!” but I said I prefer Netrebko, actually. It’s the truth.)

If you want to stand, be aware that the capacity of the Parterre standing room section has been considerably reduced by the presence of several giant video cameras. So you will have to arrive even earlier than the usual ridiculous times required by Netrebko appearances if you want a good spot. The cameras are located on the left side, so the right line may be a better idea.

*This gesture seems to have a formula tied to the bel canto favorite IV-V-I harmonic progression: hand up (IV), out (V), and down (I, or in towards chest in case of a deceptive cadence).


Audio from last night, “Coppia iniqua,” iffy quality, sorry:

Photos copyright by Wiener Staatsoper/Pöhl? From Kurier, no credit given.

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Lucia di Lammermoor: Mad about you

So generous of the Wiener Staatsoper to throw in an opera along with that mad scene, no?  But considering the spectacle of hopeless conducting and pathetic staging that surrounded Annick Massis’s moment of Crazy–and Piotr Beczala’s decent tenor aria–I kind of wish they hadn’t.  That thing I said the other day about wanting boring productions to blog about instead of tricky stuff like Herheim?  It was only a joke, but I TAKE IT ALL BACK.

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor.  Wiener Staatsoper, 1/14/2011.  Production by Boleslaw Barlog, conducted by Bruno Campanella with Annick Massis (Lucia), Piotr Beczala (Edgardo), Eijiro Kai (Enrico), Dan Paul Dumitrescu (Raimondo).

Bruno Campanella conducted with some nice differentiation of color but soporific tempos, which crippled the singers at many points.  They ran out of breath in the slow parts, they got ahead in the fast parts.  Sometimes he pulled dramatic accelerandos at the ends of numbers, which were exciting, but didn’t excuse the snooze that had preceded them.

Stage direction was nonexistent, with park and bark scenes and indulgence in semaphoric gestures of the worst sort (“O Ciel’!” proclaims Raimondo, raising both hands towards the sky).  Eijiro Kai has a solid, gravely, somewhat forced-sounding baritone, and was a stiff Enrico with little shading or expression.  Protagonists Annick Massis as Lucia and Piotr Beczala as Edgardo are both experienced exponents of their roles and made much more of them than the rest of the cast.  Unfortunately they had the chemistry and affection of two people who met that afternoon in the standing room line, but you can’t have everything.

Massis’s Lucia was delicate and neurotic, her incipient madness clear from her first entrance.  Her characterization was detailed and natural, but unfortunately her small, colorless voice didn’t make nearly as good an impression.  Her sound is thin and quavery, and she was often lost under the orchestra or in ensembles.  Her ornamentation and acuti were good, though Campanella’s tempo in “Quando, rapito in estasi” was tortuously slow.  But she pulled out all her stops for the mad scene, for which I suspect she had been saving her voice (and the orchestration is lighter), with more sound and creative, involving acting (including stepping off the main set to the very edge of the stage, almost literally leaving the world behind).  The coloratura was perfectly accurate and the high Es, with the exception of the final one, secure.  I’m not sure if she quite deserved the extent of the rapturous ovation she got, but in comparison to what had preceded the scene, it was understandable.

Beczala was said (unofficially) to be recovering from something or other and sounded off his best, singing with a reduced dynamic range of loud, loud, and loud, with a somewhat congested tone and strain on the high notes.  His Edgardo is filled with conventionally gallant acting details.  While this doesn’t quite create a rounded character, it beats standing still. Supporting characters were OK.  The chorus sounded really good, I can say that. 

Boleslaw Barlog’s ancient production begins with a few shabby, wrinkly drops that nonetheless necessitate 5-minute half-light scene changes every 20 minutes.  (With 18th-century stage technology, they could have switched out those suckers in 15 seconds.)  The Staatsoper understandably declines to provide photos of any of these sets on their website–the only photo they have that isn’t horribly blurry is the one above.  In the first scene, a background painting of a wild forest is augmented solely with a mysterious tree stump kindly placed on the center-left hot spot, so Normanno can be both seen and heard.  Things improve a bit when we go indoors, with some moderately impressive paneled rooms (pictured).  Oh, and Edgardo’s avi miei are buried in some sort of crypt (again, the pallbearers were considerate enough to set Lucia’s corpse down right next to the center-stage right hot spot, so Edgardo could off himself in acoustic favorability).  The costumes are also drab, and Massis was swimming around in a nightie that could have fit Joan Sutherland.  Come to think of it, it probably did.

Also, there were bows after every scene.  Not every act, every scene.  Strange reception at the end: extremely enthusiastic but very brief applause.  Vienna’s not the place of the Gesamtkunstwerk, though, and people are very willing to overlook massive deficiencies in some areas if there’s something they like elsewhere in the performance.  I’d prefer something that shows a group effort.  This wasn’t exactly my night.  Take me back to Germany, please.

Next: I got some Schenk wrapping-up to do, and am braving a return to the Philharmoniker tonight for Jansons and Shostakovich and Berlioz.


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L’elisir d’amore: Punch-drunk love

If you’ve ever gazed upon a stage full of picturesque Italian peasants and thought, “This would be so much better if it looked like something out of Brazil!” then have I got an Elisir d’amore for you, directed by David Bösch at the Bayerische Staatsoper.   Life in Nemorino and Adina’s post-apocalyptic village isn’t easy, what with the bombed-out looking landscape, rapey soldiers, and shortage of furniture.  But, like the chorus with their pathetic little watering cans, they learn how to find love under difficult circumstances.  The results are fabulous.

And your blogger does her best to appreciate the musical assets of Joseph Calleja’s Nemorino under some trying conditions.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/3/2011.  Production by David Bösch, conducted by Justin Brown with Joseph Calleja (Nemorino), Laura Tatelescu (Adina), Nikolay Borchev (Belcore), Alessandro Corbelli (Dulcamara), Tara Erraught (Giannetta)

Adina and Belcore.
Note that all photos show premiere cast, not the cast I saw.

The set is at first a desert adorned only with a chair and umbrella (Adina’s) and a lamppost with a phone on it.  Despite some quite spectacular effects (some using old-fashioned means like glitter and balloons), the production’s focus is on the characters.  We first meet Giannetta, whose role is greatly expanded in this production into a nerdy teenage busybody in awkward glasses and a dirty wedding dress, who constantly hangs on Nemorino (who never notices that she has a giant crush on him).  He’s a dork himself (though here neither stupid nor idiotic), and the elegant, literate Adina seems totally out of his league.  Belcore and his soldiers are senseless brutes who rape and pillage, and his relationship with Adina never seems quite consensual.  While Adina usually is played as a manipulative bitch who needs to learn to be nice, here Nemorino and Adina go through the same journey: they must learn to defy conventions, Nemorino by refusing the macho world of the army and Adina by learning to tell a man that no means no.  This change was appreciated by me!

Dulcamara arrives in a gigantic spaceship/something that glows, shoots sparks, lets off smoke, and has twirly bits sticking out all over the place (see top of post).  In the words of the program, he comes as a god to the village, one bringing the dream of consumerism (I love German programs! this one also indulges in a close reading of the gondola girl song!).  The machine’s approach was the first time I ever found the excitement of the chorus greeting Dulcamara to be merited.  The elixir itself comes in a giant tank with a hose of the sort you use to spray insecticide.  The production is full of details like this, and confetti, and the treatment of Giannetta, but it balances this silly stuff with close attention to the protagonists and the darkness of the setting itself.  The desolate atmosphere adds surprising poignancy: these people are really struggling to find happiness under difficult circumstances.  Trust the Germans to make L’elisir d’amore depressing, I know.  But I found it touching.

This production premiered around a year ago with an almost entirely different cast (original Adina Nino Machiadze sang earlier performances in this run).  The spirit was not quite aligned this time around, and sometimes it read like a very ordinary Elisir on inventive sets.  Not that there’s anything really wrong with that, but I suspect that the original cast was able to find a more distinctive tone and more comic details.  The big set pieces, including Nemorino’s now-infamous striptease with the women’s chorus, were the best moments, but the less tinkered-with scenes were not nearly as interesting (also, note to tenors: you may think black underwear looks more flattering, but it makes you look like you’re wearing a 1920’s swimsuit).

As Nemorino, Joseph Calleja (not pictured) sang with effortless sweetness and his instantly recognizable timbre, a light, bright lyric tenor with a fast and narrow vibrato.  It sounds lovely and he knows how to sing with style and feeling, but I found his Nemorino underplayed and not integrated into the production.  He was sympathetic, straightforward, and I kind of like a Nemorino who has two brain cells to rub together, but this production seems to demand someone with more personality and presence onstage.  The “Una furtive lagrima” was the most beautiful of my recent hearings, though not the most intense.  One of the most famed moments of this production in its original iteration was Nemorino singing the aria from halfway up the set’s lamppost, but Calleja did not do this at this performance.  I didn’t mind, and his release of a bunch of balloons into the flies during the final bars was a nice touch.

Laura Tatulescu (also not pictured) has a light, focused voice with plenty of carrying power, and made a sympathetic, rather passive Adina.  Unfortunately, after a solid evening she came to considerable grief in the aria at the end of the opera, running out of breath and cutting off the usual fermatas, racing through cadenzas, and singing no acuti at all.  I’m not sure what happened because the rest of her performance was good.  Alessandro Corbelli as Dulcamara was not in best voice either, sounding blustery and approximate, and did not make as much of the comedy as I think could have been done, especially considering that Dulcamara emerges from his machine wearing a spacesuit.  As Belcore, Nikolay Borchev showed barihunk qualities of swaggering acting and perfectly acceptable if not very memorable singing.

There must be something on the cover of the Elisir d’amore orchestral score that reads “This Score May Only Be Conducted Very, Very Poorly.”  This was the worst-conducted performance I have heard since Elisir in Vienna in October.  The orchestra sounded heavy and uncoordinated, and stage/pit relations were hostile.  In the arias, the conductor more or less followed the singers, but ensembles proved a trial.  Tempo changes were nail-biters.  While star conducting isn’t exactly necessary for a solid Elisir, something this bad always gets in the way.

Schenk/Anti-Schenk:  On December 21, I saw Otto Schenk’s Wiener Staatsoper production of this opera.  Both it and this were repertory performances with non-premiere casts and showed signs of limited rehearsal.  Schenk’s production emphasizes the preciousness of the story, making both protagonists childish, the peasants very tidy and cute, and the events always light.  Bösch’s production has wildly creative visuals that interpret the story with much greater complexity, and the production has a whole featured a much more interesting mix of darkness and comedy.  And the characters, even in minimally rehearsed form, seemed to grow a lot more. I found it a much more involving and emotional experience.  Given the choice I’d pick Bösch’s fun-house in a second.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.


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L’elisir d’amore: Your love is my drug

Sometimes the Wiener Staatsoper has a Noises Off! quality to it.  I’m not talking about onstage mishaps, though those happen also, or middlebrow artistic attitudes, though those are far too common as well.  No, I mean cast changes!  When ensemble member Benjamin Bruns fell ill and couldn’t sing Nemorino last night, Ramón Vargas, in town for Un ballo in maschera, took it on.  I’ve always thought Vargas a likeable guy and these one-off performances can be great fun, so I spent my beer Beerenpunsch money on a gallery standing room spot.

Bonus: it helps me organize my study of the art of Otto Schenk.  Because here we have ur-Schenk.  It’s CUTE!

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Wiener Staatsoper, 12/21/2010.  Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Guilermo García Calvo with Julia Novikova (Adina), Ramón Vargas (Nemorino), Tae Joong Yang (Belcore), Alfred Sramek (Dulcamara), Elisabeta Marin (Giannetta)

I’ve never found never found Ramón Vargas’s forrays into bigger rep very convincing; he lacks a certain vocal heroism and stage authority (his earlier, more lyric efforts are excellent).  But those would be liabilities when you’re Nemorino, and last night he turned in a free-wheeling performance of joyous singing and wonderfully undignified acting.  It wasn’t very polished in an acting sense, but come on, it’s Nemorino, the primary task is to be endearing and dumb.  And Vargas has that down, much more than Flórez in October.  Vocally he sounded better than I’ve heard him in ages, with sweet tone and unbroken legato, though he sings pretty much everything forte and the one time he tried a piano (cadenza of the Lagrima), he immediately went flat.  But such are the costs of the spinto years.

Yes, that’s La Netrebka. Only photo I could find.

Julia Novikova was a more vivacious and capricious Adina than Sylvia Schwartz in October.  She has a beautiful upper range and easy coloratura, and showed sensitive phrasing in “Prendi.”  But in a lyric role her voice is perilously small for the Staatsoper, and her sound got lost in ensembles.  Tae Joong Yang’s Belcore has grown in comedy since October and is now quite funny, but he struggled with intonation in the aria and elsewhere sounded blustery.  Vienna favorite Alfred Sramek sleep-walked through Dulcamara’s aria and somewhat compensated with tired schtick elsewhere.

I didn’t notice anything distinctive coming out of the pit but Guillermo García Calvo kept things together a lot better than Yves Abel did in October.

Otto Schenk’s production makes a better visual impression from the gallery than it did from the Parterre Stehplatz, because you can appreciate the depth of the stage and don’t see the dopey and wrinkly backdrop that clearly.  But it still has the colors and details of a picture postcard and none of the texture that brings something to vivid life, or the ideas that would focus the story in any particular direction beyond a children’s book.  People really like skipping around in circles in this production.  It’s totally kitsch, and while L’elisir d’amore isn’t exactly an opera of extremes, if can be more touching and human and less old-fashioned cute if you give it a push.

Of course it probably looked better in 1973, when this production premiered.  A coat of paint would do wonders, though it wouldn’t make it be about anything.  Remember, you can see this production on DVD with Anna and Rolando.  But if you’re just looking for an Elisir, I recommend Angie and Roberto in happier days more highly.

This is the first full entry in my series Schenk/Anti-Schenk.  The Anti-Schenk counterpart will be David Bösch’s Bayerische Staatsoper production, which I’ll see in early January.  Also, I am prepared to take whatever consequences I deserve for this post title.  But if L’elisir d’amore were pop music, it wouldn’t be Radiohead in terms of intelligence, would it?

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Elisir d’amore: I need a drink

Juan Diego Flórez is a very charming and accomplished guy, and not a good enough actor to disguise it.  As moony dumbass Nemorino he doesn’t convince, no matter how many precisely timed pratfalls he pulls.  This was a production that existed for one reason, and that was to hear him sing “Una furtiva lagrima.”

It got an endless ovation.  It was an exceptionally fine piece of singing, but embedded as it was in a production with no other distractions, how could it not?  This was your Platonic ideal of Wiener Staatsoper repertory performances: an adored star surrounded by solid but unexceptional ensemble costars, all engaging in well-worn dramatic shtick on a set that is older than any of them.  The only exception was that your average rep night has rather fewer stage-orchestra train wrecks than this one did.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Wiener Staatsoper, 29/10/10.  Production “after” Otto Schenk with sets by Jürgen Rose.  Conducted by Yves Abel with Juan Diego Flórez (Nemorino), Sylvia Schwartz (Adina), Tae Joong Yang (Belcore), Lars Woldt (Dulcamara), Anita Hartig (Giannetta)

Otto Schenk’s Elisir d’amore is located in a sunny part of Italy where the peasants are remarkably clean and well-dressed.  The set, though, has been going for 179 performances and resembles a pale beached whale, even conman Dulcamara’s wish-fulfillment wagon is faded.  The blocking is steadfastly conventional and not polished enough to acquire wit beyond the most obvious drunk jokes.  Also, re-stretch your damn backdrop, Staatsoper.  The sky is wrinkly.  But if you like this kind of thing, here it is.

So far, so repertory.  The attraction here was the Nemorino of the Flórez.  I’m usually nuts for him, but he really rubbed me the wrong way in this.  Nemorino’s music gives him little space to display his virtuoso technique and high notes, leaving him to get by on his lyricism and charm alone.  His singing is musically unimpeachable, but the tone is a bit narrow and nasal for the role.  He can fill a performance with clever stage business, but it doesn’t really cohere into a character.

Absent his dazzling coloratura, I actually found him kind of smug and annoying.  His charm is indeed plentiful, and bowled the rest of the audience over, but he seemed to know exactly how good he is, and that’s never attractive.  It’s particularly not good when you’re playing a simple and sincere soul like Nemorino–tellingly, only Nemorino’s elixir-smashed confidence actually worked.  What the hell am I asking for, I know!  But the most sympathetic performances have a sort of generosity to them, and I found that absent here.

He did encore the aria, though.  Of course.

Yes, that’s La Netrebka.  Only picture I could find, sorry!

The rest of the cast was perfectly acceptable.  New ensemble member Sylvia Schwartz as Adina missed the first two performances of the run due to illness.  Maybe she had not entirely recovered; her tone wavered between sweet and focused and fluttery and squally.  She improved as a the night went on, though, and made for a poised and accurate Adina of the lyric sort.  She doesn’t have the easy coloratura or extension for a killer “Prendi” cabaletta, but her secure low notes bode well for her appearances as Susannah and Zerlina later this season.

Tae Joong Yang has a strong and noble baritone voice, but seemed to force unnecessarily both vocally and dramatically; his Belcore scored on pomposity but could have used more suavity.  Lars Woldt was miscast as Dulcamara, with a fine voice but without the velocity to make the patter roll.  Anita Hartig’s warm voice seemed overqualified for Giannetta.

Now for the biggest problem of the evening: the conducting.  I have rarely heard such a messy performance.  Yves Abel chose perfectly conventional tempos but nearly every number featured major coordination problems between orchestra and stage, including losing the entire soprano section in the Dulcamara entrance chorus, losing both tenor and soprano towards the end of the concertante Act 1 finale, and many, many places where the singers were a beat or two off from the orchestra.  Recitatives featured odd pauses.  It was BAD.  That’s the only way to put it.

Lots of enthusiastic applause from everyone in the audience, though.  Now I remember why I avoid these tourist-magnet repertory productions.  I think I have discovered the proper place for that irritating word Startenor, though.

This was the final performance with Juan Diego but the opera marches on with various other casts later this season.  This production can also be seen on DVD with Netrebko and Villazón in excellent form.  However, my favorite Elisir remains the one with Alagna and Gheorghiu–cute 1920’s setting and he’s got that sweet stupidity, she’s got that bitchiness.

This was part 2.1 of my newly-discovered series Operas I See in Both Vienna and Munich that the Bayerische Staatsoper Does More Weirdly.  Meaning I’m going to see the notorious “underpants Elisir” with Calleja in Munich in January.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Lucrezia Borgia: The diva quantified

Last night’s Staatsoper Edita Gruberova Show, otherwise known as Lucrezia Borgia, featured the unusual sight of the orchestra onstage as well as many confused tourists who hadn’t grasped the meaning of “Konzertant” on the schedule.  But Gruberova has a cult in these parts, and the crowd was more local than usual.  Parterre’s Quantification of the Diva recently named her the greatest “contemporary diva,” a decision greeted with confusion by many Americans.  But I think that if you’re Euro, or at least if you’re Viennese, there’s little question that this judgment is correct.

Donizetti, Lucrezia Borgia.  Wiener Staatsoper in concert, 6/10/10.  Conducted by Friedrich Haider with Edita Gruberova (Lucrezia Borgia), José Bros (Gennaro), Michele Pertusi (Don Alfonso I), Laura Polverelli (Maffio Orisini)

Edita Gruberova is a miracle of vocal longevity.  She made her Staatsoper debut in 1970 but still has impeccable control over every aspect of her voice, as well as her regal stage manner, which makes her a complete and very charismatic performer.  From her first entrance, in a shiny dress and sporting fluffy hair, she radiated great confidence in her own perfection.  She’s got some great vocal tricks, her favorite being quietly hovering around a high G for an unfathomable period of time and slowly crescendoing.  Her phrasing, carefully planned and exact in every move, can be mannered, but it has a certain inner coherence and expressive commitment that made it not bother me.  And the high dramatics of poisoner/tormented mother Lucrezia Borgia fit her intense but imperious style very well.  The enormous challenges of the role didn’t seem to bother her until the marathon of the final scene–where, considering Lucrezia is dying, some vocal weaknesses can pass as dramatic effect.

It’s enough to make you barely notice that the sound itself can be dodgy in the usual ways of an aging singer.  Her tone, which in her prime was never a model of warmth, is thin in the middle, shrill on the top, and hooty in the chest voice.  Once I began to hear these well-disguised problems they began to stick out more and more.  I have to admire her–a lot–but I didn’t feel the love.

Judging from the wild cheering, It seemed like most of the audience did.  A fellow standing-room member told me about how long he and Gruberova (and the standing room section) go back, which I think was just as important an element to his bravas as anything that actually happened onstage that night, well-preserved as it was.  Maybe, at this point, you need that history.

The lack of staging of course didn’t help anything either (there were no props with the exception of a chair for Gennaro to sit on to indicate his death).  Gruberova, along with José Bros as Gennaro and Michele Pertusi as Don Alfonso, did not use music, and the trio’s interactions had some basic acting, but never enough to develop into anything.  It also didn’t help that I was unlucky in my standing room spot and they left my field of vision a few times.  (There is a DVD of Gruberova singing this role staged in Munich, with Pavol Breslik and Alice Coote as a first-class Gennaro and Orsini, and the Christof Loy production isn’t too bad once you get over the fact that it probably cost about 5 Euros. )

The non-Gruberova singers were variable.  Bros gave a solid, respectable but rather unmemorable Gennaro.  Nothing wrong with it or his bright lyric tenor voice except they weren’t exciting (and a few strained high notes in the first half).  Laura Polverelli was a dramatic and forceful Orsini, I think she would have done well with a staging.  Her tone is heavy on the vibrato, though.  The all-around best singing of the night came from classy bass Pertusi, with elegant phrasing and dark but flexible sound.

The Staatsoper orchestra, an organization to which universal opinions are often ascribed, is said to not like playing bel canto.  I thought Friedrich Haider’s tempos were perfectly reasonable, but the orchestra indeed sounded wrong, too soft-grained and misty.  A sharper attack, crisper rhythms and more forward energy would have helped.

But the orchestra wasn’t why anyone was there, they came for the Gruberova (and stayed for the Pertusi).  And I am glad that I got to see both her skill and her rapport with what truly can be called “her” public, even if I’m not a member of it.

Next: I’m going to Switzerland for Calixto Bieito’s Aida in Basel and Waltraud Meier’s Isolde in Zurich… oh, shit. Dammit.  First Nina Stemme, now Waltraud Meier cancels on me.  The Bieito and the chocolate better be good and the nine hours on the train better be comfortable.  Positing on these not until next week sometime.

Photo: Der Standard

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